Monday, June 22, 2009

The winner takes it all

So a friend of mine posted this on his facebook status today:-

"Have you wonder what the British Museum will look like if it would return the Elgin Marble to the Greeks, animal figurines from the Summer Palace to the Chinese, Rosette Stone to the Egyptian... It will not be a museum at all... British Museum in my opinion is a collection and a visual display of the looting and pillage of an empire which has lost its glory and has nothing else to boast about... shame on you!"

Below that, a string of virtual nods of approval from his friends and comments that continued the villification of the theiving British.

So post-colonialism and theories on cultural imperialism aside, I thought that this view of the British was overly emotional and so I sent him the response below:- (via private FB messaging, didn't want a public argument on FB)

"You may want to rethink what you said about the British Museum.

That the British were prolific looters of the 19th and 20th centuries, is true; however, ironically enough, the historical events of the latter part of the 20th century have conspired to turn their looting into a strange form of cultural preservation.


(a) the Cultural Revolution in China that could and probably would easily have destroyed everything that the British took from the Summer Palace.
(b) Ditto for WWII and the possible effect on the Elgin marbles - it is possible that they could/would have fallen into the hands of a wealthy German collector/ Nazi and might be languishing in the vaults of some Swiss bank somewhere - like so many European items of artistic and cultural value.
(c) The Egyptian government themselves sold one of the obelisks to the French for a clock - the French still have it though, which is something. But note that looting of all forms is rife in Egypt today - ordinary people find priceless historical objects and quietly sell them on the black market to rich collectors.

I think that the Iraq war has opened our eyes to the effect of war on objets d'arte and items of great historical value; there were items lost in the war that were from some of the most ancient civilizations of man, the Mesopotamians, the Babylonians etc. Most of them were looted by the Iraqis and sold on the black market - who knows where they are today?

The survival of the British in WWII meant the collective survival of all the things looted by the British in the preceding century. So while the British museum IS indeed full of things looted from all over the world (you're so right there!), one must also keep in mind that without that looting, and subsequent preservation, so many of those things might be lost or in the hands of private collectors now.

One must give the devil his due and acknowledge that they're protected, preserved and on display for you and I and the rest of the world to admire. I'm am unsure that if they had been left in their home countries, they would have been as well preserved or been made as readily available to the public for research and the like. They enrich our lives and give us a sense of place in the world that we wouldn't otherwise have.

This isn't to condone what the British did. But when you say 'Shame on them' - you really might want to rethink other implications of what they did too. Also, keep in mind that they're not alone. Go to the Taiwan National Musem and you'll see that almost the entire contents of the Forbidden City are on display there, taken by the KMT when they were routed by the Communists."

There's a saying that history is written by the victors. But it's an even older rule that to the victors go the spoils of war. The British, the Chinese during their Golden Tang and Song dynasties, the Egyptians, the once powerful Romans - in times of glory and of victory, these winners took it all. They re-wrote history in the blood of the fallen and they took with them the riches of the conquered.

In Roman ruins are found objects from all over their conquered empire and in Chinese palaces, the tributes and gifts sent by Malayan vassal states. So is it really all that strange to find loot from every nation the thieving (and much maligned) British went to?

My gratitude (to the British) stems from their dedication to the preservation of the cultural and artistic heritage of, well, pretty much the whole world. It's at least somewhere I have had access to, it's well preserved and made available to academics and archaeologists so all in all, the situation isn't all that dire.

Give me a break with all that post-colonial "more downtrodden than thou" attitude already. It's tiring and it's really more about self-righteous posturing than about grandiose ideals of returning historical artefacts to their rightful owners.

1 comment:

enuwy said...

I agree with a lot of what you say, but it still leaves me with the question (which I myself am undecided on) as to whether or not the British Museum should return the marbles. I can see why the British Museum wouldn't do so (the floodgates effect with regards to all the other artefacts), but now that an entire museum dedicated to the Acropolis has been built, I would very much like to see all the pieces reunited in Athens.