A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It must seem to those in Bloomsbury that the British Museum is under siege. Greek pressure for the return of the Parthenon sculptures is stepping up in advance of the 2004 Olympic Games, and in a February interview, Greece's Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, told ARCHAEOLOGY that the request for the marbles' return was not part of a broad campaign, but linked to the integrity of the Parthenon, building and sculptures. Still, the British Museum and its supporters fear that sending the sculptures back to Greece would set a bad precedent. In February, Alan Howarth, former Conservative education minister, wrote in The Guardian that, "It has often been asserted by those who wish to send the Elgin marbles to modern Greece that they are a special case and we should be able to treat them in isolation without opening a floodgate of similar requests.... Acceding to the Greek claim would certainly increase the pressure on the great museums and libraries of the world to dismantle their collections. It is foolish, on an impulse of misguided post-imperial revisionism, to undermine the world's great collections."
Several countries have called, formally or informally, for the return of objects in the British Museum's collection. China would like back Buddhist treasures from the Dunhuang Caves. The Egyptians pointedly boycotted celebrations the museum held in 1999 for the 200th anniversary of the Rosetta Stone's discovery. "We cannot celebrate the bicentenary of something we do not have," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in an Al-Ahram report. It doesn't take much to decipher that comment--the Egyptians want the stone in Cairo.
Nigeria, for its part, would like to have back the Benin bronzes. In late January, the lower house of Nigeria's parliament called on President Olusegun Obasanjo to request repatriation of objects taken during British colonial rule, especially the "bronzes," sixteenth-century cast brass sculptures and plaques, of which the museum has 50, that were taken by a 1897 British military expedition that deposed the ruler of Benin, a city-state in what is now southeastern Nigeria.
Ethiopia is pressing for the return of some 15 elephant and 200 mule loads--much of it church treasures such as illuminated manuscripts, gold and silver crosses and vessels, and vestments--taken when the British captured Maqdala, capital of the Abyssinian emperor Tewodros II, in 1868. Arguments surrounding the Maqdala treasure are echo those of the Parthenon Marbles. In late January, a carved wooden representation of the Ark of the Covenant or tabot from the Maqdala treasure was officially returned to Ethiopia. The tabot, found when a cupboard at St. John's Church, Edinburgh, was being cleaned out, was sent back by the church. When it arrived in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, in early February, it was welcome by a crowd numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
What of the eight tabots in the British Museum? "As the rejoicing earlier this month demonstrated, the tabots are a living part of those traditions," noted a February 21 report in The Guardian. "Their absence is keenly felt and the injustice of their loss resented. They have no scientific value and, since they are not displayed, the British Museum can hardly argue, as it does in the case of the Parthenon (formerly Elgin) marbles, that millions of visitors from all over the world can view them and gain from the experience." A gold crown and a chalice from Maqdala in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) collection are owned by Britain's Treasury. In a January Times of London article, a Treasury spokesman said, "By statute, the V&A is prevented from selling items in its collection, so these could not be sold or handed back." As with the Parthenon sculptures, the official line seems to be that hands are tied by law. In the same article, The Royal Collection used the integrity gambit to defend the possession of Maqdala treasures in The Royal Library at Windsor Castle: "We've never had a formal request for the manuscripts. Although we're not governed under the same rules as national collections, we have the same view that the collections are kept intact." The Ethiopians, like the Greeks, might have a different view of what it means to keep a collection intact.