The news that the Victoria and Albert Museum is considering returning Ethiopian artefacts stolen in the 19th century could set a remarkable precedent, writes Jonathan Gornall
Looted is a loaded word – but shouldn't the cultural wonders of the ancient world be admired in their country of origin?
When Titos Flavios Demetrios died in the Egyptian town of Hawara 2,000 years ago, he did so fully expecting that his soul and carefully mummified body would be transported from the Nile valley, where he had spent his life, to the underworld and the eternal company of Osiris, god of the dead.
Imagine how surprised he might have been, therefore, to discover that instead, he would be sitting out the afterlife in a display case in a small provincial museum in Ipswich, a town in the east of England.
Like countless thousands other human remains, carvings, steles, tablets, statues and pots uprooted from the soil of the ancient world and shipped to western museums during the heyday of European imperial expansion, the displaced Titos Flavios is but one small part of a massive diaspora of cultural objects.
The British Museum alone has more than 100,000 items from Egypt and 170,000 from Mesopotamia, where generations of British archaeologists helped themselves to the treasures of Babylon, Nineveh and Nimrud. Such was the overspill of loot hauled back to England at the height of empire that few provincial museums, such as that in Ipswich, are without their incongruous souvenirs.
The British weren’t the only ones who dug up the lands they conquered. Among the many antiquities the French helped themselves to were items liberated by Napoleon during his 1798 to 1801 Egyptian campaign. There would be more but much of the loot was intercepted by the Royal Navy and redirected into British museums.
And that, for a couple of hundred years, was that.
But the news this week that the Victoria and Albert Museum is considering returning to Ethiopia artefacts looted by British troops in the mid-19th century threatens to shake up the whole cosy arrangement, setting a remarkable precedent that could have positive consequences for people and cultures around the world.
“Looted” is a loaded word. But it could be argued that the seemingly more palatable “excavated” is no less contentious when the excavation in question has been carried out as a kind of cultural droit du seigneur exercised by an overbearing imperial power.
Institutions such as the V&A and the British Museum are packed with the treasures of empire, taken either at the point of a gun or an imperial archaeologist’s trowel. Some are on display but the vast majority are languishing unseen in storage. Of the British Museum’s total collection of eight million objects, only 70,000 are on display at any one time.
It isn’t entirely clear why the V&A, which on Thursday opened an exhibition of treasures captured after the defeat of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros at the battle of Maqdala in 1868, is now considering returning the loot, probably on permanent loan. But Tristram Hunt, the former British MP and shadow education secretary who is now director of the V&A, appeared to suggest it was about doing the right thing.
“We should not to be afraid of history, even if it is complicated and challenging,” he said earlier this week. “We should have the bravery to deal with it.”
Regardless of the V&A’s motive, the move may have flung wide open the Pandora’s box unlocked by French President Emmanuel Macron, who in November suggested it was time for the African treasures scattered among European museums to be returned to Africa.
Certainly, the V&A initiative will have raised eyebrows in the western museum community – and hopes of restitution in countries that have long yearned for the return of their past.
Ethiopia itself has been seeking the return of artefacts from the V&A, the British Museum and the British Library since 2008. Greece has threatened legal action to force the UK to return the so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped from the Acropolis and the Parthenon in Athens 200 years ago by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin – an act condemned even at the time, by the poet Byron, among others, as vandalism.
We live in an aggressively revisionist age in which the everyday acts of the past are being interpreted afresh as sins. Statues to slave traders are being toppled in towns and universities that owe their foundation to the ill-gotten gains of the slave trade. Why should the practice of carting off the physical remains of entire cultures be exempt from such critical re-evaluation?
There are arguments for keeping such treasures where they don’t belong, put forward by imperial apologists even as they acknowledge the historic imbalance of power that made such large-scale pillaging possible. But these arguments are both specious and, ironically, fundamentally imperialist.
Such treasures, they say, are far better protected by those who know how to care for them (subtext: we know best and you lot can’t be trusted not to break things). Of course, there will be incidents that seem to support this view, such as ISIL’s destruction of Assyrian treasures. But the West is not immune to such turmoil, nor innocent of propagating it. During the Second World War, for example, the British Museum lost thousands of priceless items to German bombs and extensive looting of antiquities was one of the many unforeseen consequences of the 2003 western invasion of Iraq.
Besides, in this supposedly post-imperial era, what gives western institutions the right to high-handedly seek to protect other cultures from themselves? It is doubtful the British government would much appreciate an intervention from, say, Egypt, concerned at the loss of London’s medieval street plan to the building boom transforming the heart of the city.
Yet far more insidious is the argument of cosmopolitanism, which suggests that the world’s cultural treasures are best concentrated where the world is most likely to come to view them – a philosophy summed up by the British Museum’s insistence that it is “a museum of the world, for the world”. The breadth and depth of its collection, says a spokesperson, “allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures”. There is, she adds, “a great public benefit to objects from across the world being accessible to millions of people here at the museum”.
The problem with this is that it is only the world’s relatively wealthy who are capable of making such a cultural pilgrimage. Poor Iraqi or Egyptian workers will never be able to visit London or Paris and so are forever severed from their cultural roots.
One argument for hanging on to all those wonders of the ancient world that is never made in public is that institutions such as the British Museum and the V&A are money-spinners, helping to attract millions of visitors – and their wallets – to the countries that host them.
To lose the wonders of the ancient world would, of course, be a blow to the prestige and exchequers of those countries but a boon to the nations that are their rightful owners. If those treasures weren’t in the great temples of imperial acquisition, perhaps some of the well-heeled cultural tourists would seek them out in their homelands.
That would be good for local economies and good for bolstering national and regional pride and identities – and, for those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel to such countries, would perhaps broaden their minds and contribute to international understanding in the process. What better place to marvel at the cultural wonders of the ancient world than in the lands where those cultures once flourished?