Time to put treasures on display where they belong
Published on 30 Jul 2010
By Jennifer Cunningham
The 11 carved ivory pieces of the Lewis Chessmen belonging to the National Museum of Scotland have been joined by 25 of the 82 pieces held by the British Museum for a Scottish tour.
On display in Edinburgh until September 19, they will spend next summer in Stornoway, the museum nearest to where they were found at Uig in the west of Lewis.
The intricate 12th century carvings are the Scottish equivalent of the Koh-i-Noor diamond: unique, priceless and in safekeeping far from the place they were originally found. Both are the subject of campaigns to have them returned home and both raise similar questions over how disputes over custodianship of cultural artefacts of international importance should be resolved.
On an official visit to India designed to increase business between the two countries, David Cameron refused to return the Koh-i-Noor on the grounds that if every request were granted the British Museum would be emptied.
The literally priceless diamond (no gemmologist has put a value on it) means mountain of light but it also now betokens the murky dealings which haunt the provenance of some of the world’s greatest cultural artefacts.
The Koh-i-Noor was mined in India and seized by the British after they gained control of Punjab. It was presented to Queen Victoria and has been part of the British Crown Jewels for over 150 years. It was last worn by the late Queen Mother and displayed on top of her crown when her coffin lay in state after her death in 2002.
That firmly establishes its place in British culture but in India, a campaign for the return of the 105-carat diamond has attracted high-profile backers including Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the leader of India’s independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who wants it returned as “atonement for the colonial past”. Labour politicians Keith Vaz and Tom Watson have suggested that a British government intent on a positive new partnership with India should seal it with a return of the fabled diamond.
That is not as easy as it sounds. There is substance to Cameron’s argument that granting one request would not only open the gates to more but would also empty the British Museum. It is well-known that Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone to be back in Cairo and Greece has been campaigning for 30 years for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Athens and has even built the new Acropolis Museum to boost their case. Nigeria wants 900 historic bronzes back.
In addition the Koh-i-Noor, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has a list “too long to handle” of cultural treasures it wants foreign countries to return. Those in Britain include the Amravati railings, a series of limestone carvings dating from around AD100, acquired from a Buddhist temple in Andhra Pradesh by Victorian explorers and the Saraswati idol, a sculpture of the Hindu deity from the Bhoj temple.
A few museums have been willing to part with individual smaller items, such as the Ghost Shirt, taken from the body of a warrior at the Wounded Knee massacre and returned to the native American Lakota people by Glasgow City Council in 1999, and preserved Maori heads returned to New Zealand from Kelvingrove and Perth Museum. These are the easy cases as there is no appetite in the 21st century to hang on to grisly human remains and there is equal reluctance to deprive communities of religious significance.
Major items are a different matter. Most museums are reluctant to even enter talks about returning them, pointing out that in many cases they are banned by law or their founding articles from divesting their collections. The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is currently using a 100-episode series on BBC Radio 4 to demonstrate how the breadth and depth of its collection illustrates the interconnection of cultures throughout the world over the last two million years.
This is the kernel of the argument; that far from being the souvenir collection of the British Empire’s pith-helmeted governing classes, the global range and significance of the collection is necessary to understand human history. It is bolstered by the fact that they have been preserved in optimum conditions, whereas many would have deteriorated had they remained in their country of origin.
In addition, they are on display to a public that does not have to pay to see them. The Crown Jewels, however, can only be viewed by paying the admission charge (£17 for an adult) to the Tower of London. It is a reminder that the economic gains from cultural tourism are an additional factor in many repatriation demands.
The difficulty of unravelling the historical complexities of what was seized as booty and what was bought legitimately has been recognised in the 1970 Unesco Convention requiring the return of illicitly traded artefacts, which cannot be applied retrospectively. That must not prevent action on recent thefts or unauthorised sales, such as the 9,000 artefacts looted from the Iraq Museum of Antiquities in the wake of the 2003 invasion.
Even if the thorny questions of ownership, entitlement and custodial expertise are resolved, the final question of where is home can prove equally tricky. It is a safe bet that when the travelling chessmen reach the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway next summer, there will be a campaign for at least some of the pieces to be returned to Uig, particularly if the planned St Kilda Centre can provide sufficient security.
That will find popular appeal but those who support the theory that they were probably hidden in the sand dunes by someone shipwrecked en route from Norway may suggest they go to Scandinavia.
It is time to recognise that the most important thing is that such treasures are on public display. Wherever possible, that should be in the place they are most closely associated with.
That is more likely to be achieved by collaboration and agreeing loans than by acrimonious ownership contests that are doomed to failure.
************************************************************************Yeah, and what she's not saying is what happens if the Scots decided not to give the on-loan Lewis pieces back once the show is over?
I doubt England would send it the Army. But there would be hell to pay if museums could no longer trust that artifacts loaned out to others would be returned per agreement. Guess what - no more world tours of artifacts that otherwise one would only see in the pages of a purchased exhibit catalog (which are not exactly inexpensive) or online photographs - if available. Many precious artifacts are not available in photographs, even from museums such as the British Museum, the Met and the Louvre, let alone lesser-known museums that hold equally precious artifacts, such as rare game boards and ancient gaming pieces.