While on a walking tour of England in 1782, the German, Carl Philip Moritz, wandered through the British Museum and was astonished — by the exhibits but also the clientele. It was humming with people, “of all classes and both sexes, including some of the lowest classes; for, since the Museum is the property of the nation, everyone must be allowed the right of entry”, he exclaimed.
The British Museum had been established in 1753 by an Act of Parliament, in an act of intellectual and political radicalism. The founders were inspired by the Enlightenment conviction that through the examination of objects and specimens they could investigate the truth of things for themselves. Such knowledge, they believed, should be free to all men and women. Anyone could visit, so long as they applied in writing and had clean shoes. Visitors, used to the European princely royal collections, where the sovereign granted entry only to the right class of person, had seen nothing like it.
The early collection was a jumble of books, insects, scientific instruments and plants. Over the following decades, artefacts from ancient Rome, Egypt — including a huge granite head of the Pharaoh Ramesses II — and the Parthenon Marbles, carved in fifth century BC Athens, were acquired. They towered near the feathered and intricately carved artefacts collected by members of Captain Cook’s expeditions from the islands of the Pacific. The jostling of objects from different cultures encouraged comparisons, as well as fierce arguments over who did it best.
In the 19th century, the Parthenon Marbles were considered the greatest artefact of all time. They competed for attention with the winged lions and their human heads from the ancient Assyrian empire. One member of a parliamentary select committee set up to discuss their value asserted that the “Nineveh marbles” were not art and fretted that they “may deteriorate public taste”.
Then, in the early years of the 20th century, after a violent battle during the carve-up of Africa by the British Empire, in which British troops exiled the king of Benin, the Benin Bronzes arrived: narrative ivory and bronze plaques and sculptures that display scenes from court life.
They transformed the way Europeans saw Africa. People were surprised that Africans, whom they assumed to be backward, could make such refined artwork. Picasso’s artwork never looked the same.
In contrast to national museums, which display artefacts from the national culture, encyclopaedic collections such as the British Museum draw out the relationships between civilisations, illustrating the uniqueness of cultures and their commonalities. But that universal ideal, the understanding that the whole world in its complexity is aided by bringing artefacts from all over the world together, is under threat from the idea that one culture owns “their culture”.
“Many of the demands for the return of artefacts are made in the limiting language of nationalism”
Last week, the governor of Easter Island visited Bloomsbury and asked the British Museum to return one of its eight-foot basalt statues to their island. The governments and officials of Greece, Egypt, China, Africa and others with artefacts in foreign museums argue that they should be returned because they contain vital components of their identity, that the Parthenon Marbles are “Greek” and the Benin Bronzes “African”.
It’s an argument that is having some effect. The British Museum has agreed to loan some of its Benin Bronzes collection to Nigeria; President Emmanuel Macron of France, a nation that has long held tight to artefacts from other countries, has gone further. He has pledged to return 26 Benin Bronzes, with more to follow. The pressure to send the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece continues to build. Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to return them if he is ever elected Prime Minister.
It’s understandable that people feel an attachment to objects crafted from within their lands but many of the demands for return are made in the limiting language of nationalism. “Nobody in this world, except the people of Benin, can imagine the intrinsic value of the works or understand their relevance and meaning, no matter how much they may admire the aesthetics, the brilliance, or the magnificence of these works,” argued the Benin Prince Edun Akenzua, in 2010, when he pleaded for the return of the Benin Bronzes.
The idea that there is only one home for an object, that the Parthenon or the Benin Bronzes belong exclusively to the modern people of Greece or Nigeria, is flawed. Many of the states claiming the artefacts were created long after the objects. Ancient Greece was a series of city states; Athenians — not Greeks — built the Parthenon. The concept of a continued and unique “Greekness” that ties together the ancient past and the people of the present ignores centuries of invasions, changing borders and the mixing of peoples.
As for the Benin Bronzes, many were created in the 16th century, long before the modern state of Nigeria existed. They were made by the Benin craftsman for the king, not modern Nigerians. And no matter where you are from, you can look upon them with understanding and admiration.
Art objects have always changed hands and travelled across borders, whether as trade goods or loot, or as an influence. They aid the understanding of other peoples and places. That’s why the Benin Bronzes, and all the other marvellous treasures, belong in the world’s great encyclopaedic museums, far from where they were created.