In a way I can sympathise with what Mary Beard is saying (but yes, depending on your viewpoint her timing is either perfect or rotten). After all, she’s calling for a dispersal of major antiquities through the world because it’s not always such a clever idea to keep all your artefacts in one location (as this makes the location an easy target for looting and destruction). It therefore seems logical and sensible to disperse antiquities and it’s far from the first time I’ve heard someone put this argument forward, but I will explain why I don’t think this idea will ever work out.
Before you start throwing stones at me, think about the following for a moment. People seem perfectly willing to support the ideas of ‘world heritage’ and the ‘cultural heritage of mankind’ (1954 Hague Convention) until the matter of ownership is touched upon. Countries such as Greece and Italy, which have made and still make claims to have artefacts returned, seem more than willing to share their heritage by lending objects out to international museums. The issue therefore seems to be the ownership of the artefacts, and perhaps not their actual location? I’m not sure how I should interpret Mary Beard’s recommendation about the dispersal of antiquities. Is she ‘merely’ advocating the relocation of antiquities or is she talking about the transfer of ownership to other countries?
I recently had a very interesting class about the ‘nationalist vs internationalist’ debate at UCL in which Marina Papa Sokal, one of my lecturers, put forward the idea of ‘the international circulation of art and antiquities among public institutions’. She suggested that countries should collaborate more with each other in ‘museum-to-museum exchanges’ in order to ensure the circulation and accessibility of cultural heritage. She even went as far as to suggest that museums should be allowed to sell off their objects to museums in other countries and then use the money in order to enrich their own collections by buying antiquities from perhaps yet another museum.
The problem I have with her idea is that I don’t see how it could work out. Or perhaps the problem is that I can see EXACTLY how this would work out. Where would poorer countries get the money from to be able to acquire these artefacts and conserve and protect them? In the end it would still be the rich Western museums that would end up with the largest and best collections because they are the only ones who can afford to acquire and keep them. And if you follow that up, you have to decide whether what some internationalists in Western countries are trying to accomplish with this is actually, as Prott suggested, a new sort of cultural imperialism ‘based as it seems to be on the activities of those from wealthy countries with each other and with poorer states whose cultural resources are flowing in one direction, without an equal exchange’.
I liked that Marina said that ‘inhabitants of poor countries might want or deserve access to objects from other cultures and not just their own’. But to me it sounds too idealistic and not realistic enough. Which of its major British antiquities do you think the BM will send to Sudan or Congo for safekeeping?
Papa-Sokal, M., 2009. Beyond the nationalist-internationalist polarisation in the protection of archaeological heritage: A response to Professor Merryman. Art Antiquity and Law 14: 237-274.
Prott, L.V., 2005. The international movement of cultural objects. International Journal of Cultural Property 12: 225-248.