It is nearly 10:00 AM, and the excitement is building. I wait among dozens of other eager museum-goers, glancing down at our watches and up at the doors, still closed. We know what is on the other side of these simple wooden barriers, standing in stark contrast to the magnificence of the building that puts them to use. Finally, a uniformed security officer opens the doors and I, along with scores of others, rush in to glance into a glass case housing a piece of stone, one that changed our understanding of the ancient world. This is the Rosetta Stone, one of the jewels of the British Museum.
Excuse the glare, please.
After an exciting journey through Egypt via this wing of the museum, I move on to the spectacular winged lions of Assyrian gates, marbled scenes from the Parthenon of Athens, African totems, and oh so much more. Each room is overwhelming, the artifacts of the world competing for my eye, treasures of history waiting to be discovered, yearning for me to learn their secrets. Here, the remnants of an Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. There, a Japanese screen, hand painted in flowing characters.
Assyrian winged lion gates from Iraq. Stunning!
The British Museum is, without question, one of the finest collections in the world. It houses and preserves countless priceless treasures from all over the globe, items brought from all corners of a once vast empire for cataloguing, safe-keeping, and hoarding. Some were given voluntarily, some were purchased, and some were looted and stolen. All ended up here, celebrating the remnants of the British Empire.
At its peak, the British Empire extended from Ireland to India, Canada to Capetown, Egypt, Iraq, and other holdings in the Caribbean, East Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and more. It was said that the sun never set on the British flag, and truly it was one of the vastest and wealthiest the world has seen. During these conquests and colonial days, the British government acquired many unique historical items, and subsequently sent them back here, to be catalogued, maintained, and put on display. If you are looking for the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (also known as the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), it exists not in Bodrum, Turkey where the Greeks built it, but here in the British Museum – or at least the remnants of it. The same can be said of so many ancient relics from Babylon and Nineveh in present-day Iraq, Greek and Roman treasures, and nearly anything able to be moved from Egypt.
Of particular controversy are the Elgin Marbles, the marble adornments on the Parthenon in Athens, acquired by Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century, supposedly via sale from the local occupying Ottoman officials. About half of the Parthenon decorations were moved to London by Lord Elgin, and sold to the British government, and put on display here in the British Museum. After regaining independence in 1832, the new Greek government set about to retrieve looted treasures from Ottoman times, and petitioned the British to regain possession of these, perhaps their most prized artifacts from their most famous monument.
Some of the Elgin Marbles, displayed beautifully. These images of marching characters lined the Parthenon. Half are here; half are in Greece.
Excuses were made that the Greeks had no world-class facility in which to display the relics, to safeguard them for future generations. In response, Greece constructed the Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009, within sight of the Parthenon itself, with a space built specifically to unite, preserve, and display the Greek-held half with its British counterpart. Still, the British Museum refused, and also rebuffed attempts by UNESCO to mediate.
So who is right? Does a colonial or occupying power have the right – legal or moral – to procure cultural artifacts from an occupied country for safekeeping, and to keep them once the country regains independence? Does the British Museum have a valid claim that these artifacts, held together with so many others, create a tale of world history that cannot be told by a museum dedicated only to a single site or culture? Does a country have a right to reclaim pieces of its history that may have been sold in what was at the time a legal manner?
The beautiful inner courtyard of the Museum
Examining first the legal implications, it would be hard to find a set of laws that would apply to two separate nation-states as well as to the private entity (the British Museum) that owns the relics. Relying merely on British law, the British Museum Act of 1963 forbids the Museum from disposing of its holdings for nearly any reason. This was tested in court in 2005 in the matter of artworks held by the Museum that were stolen from their original owners by the Nazis during World War Two, and the High Court of England and Wales ruled that they could not be returned to their original owners. Greece can sue the UK in the International Court of Justice (although the European Court of Human Rights threw out the case in 2016, claiming lack of jurisdiction since the taking of the artifacts was done 150 years before the UK signed on to the relevant international convention) but that may not go anywhere.
Moral seems a bit clearer. Given the availability of a proper facility for the Marbles in Athens, it seems the right thing to do to return them. I can only imagine if Canada invaded the US and sold the Declaration of Independence to a museum in Italy that I would be screaming for its return. Now, in the case of the Rosetta Stone, I am not sure if Egypt has such a museum (or if they even care about getting the artifact back). But with both the desire and a world-class museum, I think it morally correct to return them. Keeping them seems trying to hang on to some aspect of empire, long after its crumble.
The Museum entrance
Regardless of the controversy of the Elgin Marbles and any other aspects of the collection, for now, the British Museum offers history lovers and museum buffs a single venue through which to explore some of the most fascinating periods and places in human history. Well curated, free (although there are ever-present people and signs asking for donations), and beautiful, it is perhaps one of the positives from British colonialism. These artifacts are preserved and available for people like me to see when in London. Just please, make a deal with Greece!
Like it? Pin it!