Category Archive 'Antiquities Returns'

17 Feb 2011

Returning Antiquities

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The Bookworm has some thoughts on the morality and practical consequences of returning antiquities from Western museums to their lands of origin.

The narrative has long been in place: For centuries, the predatory West raped the ancient world — Egypt, Greece, the Fertile Crescent, Persia — of her culture. Greedy treasure hunters and archeologists stole her mummies, her statuary, her carvings, her jewels and her wall paintings. Their museums gained world renown because of these ill-gotten gains, while the countries of origin moldered, deprived not only of their natural riches, but also of their historic legacy. With the end of colonialism after World War II, the situation started righting itself, as now-properly abashed Western countries began returning these stolen treasures to their true homes.

The actual story is a bit different. The cultures that had created those treasures had long vanished by the time the Western collectors showed up and started sniffing around. Where once had been glory, now was abysmal poverty. More than that, there was a profound disinterest in the past. The citizens of Egypt, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, etc., cared nothing for the treasures beneath their feet. Those that they couldn’t see, they forgot; those that they could see, they recycled. They broke down ancient structures and used their stones to build their homes; they melted down ancient jewelry, and refashioned the gold in modern design. The Egyptian mummies to which thieves had easy access had long since vanished — some within days of being interred — especially since their wrappings made good paper and, for centuries, their dust was thought to have curative powers.

What made these remnants of the past valuable was the interest the West had in the ancient world’s past. To the Middle East, they were raw material; to the Westerners, things of beauty and wonder. And so the West took them away, to museums and private collections. In terms of what was happening in the Middle East 200 years ago or 100 years ago, Western activity was akin to digging in the garbage to collect someone else’s discards. The only thing that bespoke value in the regions themselves was gold, so the archeologists figured out that, if they gave to the fellahin who unearthed the ancient gold a sum of money equal to that object’s weight, the latter cheerfully parted with their cultural past.

The relics, once in the West, were treated with a reverence denied them in the lands from which they emerged. They were cleaned, restored, maintained, studied and much visited. And of course, as their status rose, the people who had so cavalierly parted with them realized that they had lost something of value. When they had achieved some measure of moral power, they demanded them back. Often, the West complied with those demands. …

[M]any ended up back at home, in lands governed by dictatorships. These, no matter how long they last, invariably seem to end in a welter of violence, flames, vandalism and theft. Is it a surprise, then, that when a dictatorship ends, it’s often the case that the treasures, once ignored and abused, then revered in foreign lands, and then returned to their natal soil, should be amongst the first casualties?


Statue of 18th Dynasty Pharoah Akhenaton, circa 1336 BC, recently looted from Egyptian museum and found two weeks later discarded beside a garbage bin.

30 Jan 2011

Antiquities Vandalized in Egypt

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Last year, the New York Metropolitan Museum returned 19 artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Back in 2003, the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Atlanta gave Egypt back the mummy of Ramses I.

Riding a wave of liberal guilt and political correctness, Egyptian officials have demanded that Western museums generally empty their Egyptian exhibitions and return antiquities recovered by Western scholarship. Targets for such demands have included the Rosetta Stone currently in the British Museum, the Berlin Museum’s bust of Queen Nefertiti, and a number of reliefs depicting a journey in the Afterlife from the Louvre. Only the Louvre has so far capitulated to Egyptian demands.

It ought to have been obvious that irreplaceable art objects and antiquities are more accessible to larger audiences and to scholars, and considerably safer, in museums located in the West.

Hyperallergic has a collection of photographs of the damage to the Egyptian Museum from Aljazeera.

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This Red Alert from the security consultancy Stratfor suggests that security forces might have been behind the (clearly limited) vandalism to the museum, attempting to create a pretext, and support, for a crackdown on demonstrators.

The Egyptian police are no longer patrolling the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hamas armed men are entering into Egypt and are closely collaborating with the [Muslim Brotherhood]. The MB has fully engaged itself in the demonstrations, and they are unsatisfied with the dismissal of the Cabinet. They are insisting on a new Cabinet that does not include members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Security forces in plainclothes are engaged in destroying public property in order to give the impression that many protesters represent a public menace. The MB is meanwhile forming people’s committees to protect public property and also to coordinate demonstrators’ activities, including supplying them with food, beverages and first aid.


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