Friday, February 12, 2010

A history of the looted world

I can't be the only person who has listened to episodes of "A History of the World in 100 objects" and thought... ok, why do we have *that* in the British Museum. Just as I felt uncomfortable as a child reading the tales of derring-do from the books my mother's generation read in the 1940s, which described Germans as Huns and American Natives as Red Indians... where the white man was always cultured, scientific and right, and the Barbarians began at Calais. Nowadays I feel that same sense of my cultural conscience pricking whenever I go near to a museum which is filled with the plunder of previous ages.

I listened to the factional tales of the Codex Sinaiticus on Radio 4 last year, which is split up in four different locations due to its having been removed from the monastery of St Catherines in Sinai, where it was kept, and thought... how can we, morally, hold onto so much stolen property as though we had some right to it? The only reason it is in four locations is due to its theft, on the pretext of academic study of what is the oldest existing bible, although the facts of the theft are disputed between the different institutions holding the pieces, according to the Radio 4 programme and Wikipedia.

It seems to me that academic reasoning for keeping artefacts which we have, in previous generations, looted from all corners of the world, is shaky at the least in a world where travel is fast and cheap and cameras, videos and 3D interpretations of objects as possible. The idea that we need the Elgin marbles to be in London is ridiculous.

I have no problem with artefacts found in Britain being kept in Museums, and I realise that the provenance and chequered history of some items may make it debatable where their true home should be. But some things... the Codex Sinaiticus, for example, have clear home from which they were looted. And those should be returned.

So the pleasure of listening to people on the History of the the world in 100 objects is marred for me by the feeling that quite a quantity of the things which are mentioned were stolen or looted from their rightful home, and should not be in the British Museum anyway.

Much less conscience pricking - and to me, more interesting - are the items submitted by listeners, with their personal stories about why they are significant to them or to world history. It seems to me that it would be great to have a place to display these things in real life - a public museum space. You could probably get an arts council grant to do it....

While I'm musing in this rough ballpark, the other thing which drives me to distraction is when museums containing artefacts owned by the nation insist on charging ridiculous amounts for the right to reproduce them. For example, the image above, which shows the disputed Codex Sinaiticus, is copyright The British Library. What? Their photograph which only contains the image of an object which does not belong to them, but which they retain in their possession. I don't think so.

In the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, I think it should be possible to take photographs and use them however you wish. And I think the museums should make their reference photographs available free of charge, creative commons. If education is really their aim and raison d'etre. they would change their policy on this, pronto.

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