The British Museum in London is famous for many of its exhibits. It is also visual evidence of an era when Britain was the most powerful country in the world and the sun never set on its empire.
If the 19th century was a time of political dominance (although contested) for the British, it was also a time when British explorers were engaged in adventure, Lord Elgin being one. When he visited the acropolis, he decided to take its famous friezes with him. He stripped what he liked and sold to the British Museum. Thus Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, brought fame to this old Scottish peerage.
The Greeks now have been asking for them back but lacking international clout their requests have been summarily dismissed by Rishi Sunak the right wing prime minister. “The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations … The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it,” he stated.
On the other hand, senior Greek ministers confirm there have been secret talks between their government and George Osborne, the museum’s chair.
Time will tell what happens, except that is not the only bit of loot and plunder in Britain. There are, for example, Benin bronzes also in the British Museum although they say plans are afoot to return them after the government of Nigeria set out ground rules to repatriate them to the Oba of Benin, the rightful owner and a titular head.
Let us not forget China which is fretting about its antiquities, and, yes, you guessed it ,,, The British Museum owns the largest collection of Chinese antiquities in the Western world.
The collection embraces a wide variety of treasured items like ceramics, jade, bronzes and paintings. Among the latter is a replica of the scroll “Admonitions of the Instructress of the Court Ladies,” considered a landmark in Chinese art history. A chorus of calls to return Chinese art has lately mushroomed on its social media.
There are a slew of questions on where art belongs or where it should be displayed. Should it be in its home country even if few get to see it? Or should it be among a huge number of items as in the British Museum or the Louvre where you could spend days and not cover all the exhibits. The former is a short walk from the University of London Students Union Building and not a bad way to spend an idle hour I remember. Everything was less busy then. I also remember going to Versailles and being the only person in the private apartments except for the guards. Imagine that now when you have to get a token and wait.
The world changes and we must change with it. If one were to take a guess, it is probably likely the Chinese will eventually get their scroll returned. Perhaps we should think of significant works of art in a unifying way as pinnacles of human achievement.