Monday, December 14, 2009

The Rosetta Stone: The Times Responds

Graham Stewart, a columnist for The Times (London) has responded to the publicity surrounding the Rosetta Stone ("The booty included the four bronze horses of St Mark's, Venice", The Times December 12, 2009). Stewart confuses two separate issues: significant cultural objects that left their countries long before 1970; and the recent (i.e. post 1970) looting of archaeological sites to provide material for the market.

Stewart presents a simplistic view of those who argue for the return of cultural property:
"To those who believe antiquities must be repatriated to the land that created them it is all about honouring context and respecting national identity."
First, archaeological objects can be understood when they are retrieved from archaeological contexts in a scientific manner. Second, archaeological objects lose their contextual information when looted. Third, recently looted archaeological objects should be returned to the country from which they had been looted. Thus the Athenian Euphronios / Sarpedon krater was not returned to Greece but rather to Italy because it appears to have been snatched from an Etruscan tomb.

Stewart's presents a Cuno-like argument for the universal museum:
"worldclass museums protest that they exist to promote scholarship and cultural understanding far beyond the narrow confines of their own national borders."
But one of the things that we can learn from the returns to Italy is that several "worldclass museums" in North America were more keen to acquire than to put in place ethical acquisition policies.

The British Museum is now faced with requests to return the Parthenon marbles (Stewart insists on using "The Elgin Marbles") and the Rosetta Stone.(And what about the Benin Bronzes?)

Stewart sees the justification for retaining cultural property in the actions of Napoleon:
"The French looted far more from their fellow Europeans than from the Egyptians."
Indeed Stewart cites the bronze horses of San Marco in Venice as examples of material "stolen" by Venetians from Constantinople.

Stewart asks a further question:
ought the British to demand that the Russian National Library returns its copy of the 8th century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede? The key work by the father of English history could hardly be of greater significance to the country of its origin. Yet, that it exists at all may be precisely because a Russian diplomat, Peter Dubrovsky, removed it from Paris during the French Revolution, fearing it was not safe in a city being plundered by Jacobin mobs.
Stewart states that the Northumbrian Bede should remain in St Petersburg. There is an implicit statement about the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon marbles.

Stewart avoids the main questions. Is it better to display the Parthenon marbles in a purpose-built museum within sight of the Parthenon or to let them remain in the Duveen Gallery in Bloomsbury? And is the Rosetta Stone such an icon of Egyptology that it deserves to be displayed in Egypt, the land where it was found?

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