Monday, March 1, 2010

The trials of repatriation of national treasures

The recent decision of British Museum director, Neil Macgregor, to ‘delay’ the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran is an interesting one. On the face of it, this is due to the recent dramatic discovery in the BM’s stores of fragments of the same inscription. The Cyrus Cylinder is a clay cylinder dating from 539bc inscribed with a decree from the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, and discovered in 1879 during an excavation in Babylon (now in Iraq) sponsored by the BM. The new pieces apparently assist with the reading of passages in the Cylinder that are either missing or are obscure, and therefore help to improve understanding of the cylinder, showing the declaration on it is much more than a standard Babylonian building inscription, and probably an imperial decree that was distributed around the Persian Empire. The BM has some 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mespotamia, so you could say it is not surprising that it has taken this long to find one that cross references.

But the Iranians have been hassling for the loan of the cylinder for some time, threatening to cut off ties with the BM if they do not get it. This press release from Iran has itself shown what strong and complicated views there on the subject from the unreprintable to WHO ON EARTH DO THE IRANIAN GOVT AND PEOPLE THINK THEY ARE? THIS STONE BELONS TO IRAQ, BABYLON IS IN IRAQ NOT IRAN and Are you people kidding me? The British Museum is home to nothing but stolen treasures that remind us all of their horrible history of war crimes, colonization, and the fact that the world would be a much better place if they just stayed put on their island.

That was last October and all seemed to be resolved with a date for the loan finalised in December 2009, until the latest find of comparative material justified more time required for research purposes. The reaction from Iran has now become much stronger with a full scale diplomatic row, and potential downgrading of diplomatic relations. Despite the ongoing protestations from Macgregor that the BM is still committed to the loan happening later in the year, one cannot help suspect that he is seriously concerned that the Cylinder will never be returned once loaned.

Of course the Elgin marble returnees are making merry of his predicament. Websites such as Elginism (‘an act of cultural vandalism’), Marbles Reunited and The International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (headed by our own ex-ABC director David Hill) show just how much public pressure there is on the BM to repatriate parts of their collection.

I have written elsewhere that I believe the Elgin marbles should now be returned, as their legal acquisition was dubious, their care by the BM initially deplorable, their value to Greek culture immense and their ongoing preservation now assured in the new Acropolis Museum. But what a predicament it is, that you would not wish on any museum director, whose ultimate charge is the preservation and maintenance of their institutions collections not their dispersement to other organisations, however justifiable the reasons. And the demands are going to become greater not lesser as the Cyrus Cylinder has shown – it is not even listed in the BM’s hundred most important objects.

I was reminded of the same issue last week when in Hanoi to discuss the new National History Museum of Vietnam. Housed in a vast and fine new building (yet to be built) the Museum is planned to become the definitive statement about the history of Vietnam. That will surely mean there is demand for objects of their ancient Viet culture to be returned from museums across the world.

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