A fragment of the sphinx’s beard has spent the past few decades stored out of sight in the British Museum. Now, the Egyptians want it back. An 800-year-old Buddhist statue from Sri Lanka stands proudly on display, but the government of Sri Lanka has formally asked for its return. Even the Elgin Marbles, the most famous treasures in the world’s most famous treasure-house, have become the subject of controversy. Although no official request has been received by the British Museum, the Greek minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, has publicly indicated that Greece wants back the magnificent classical sculptures that once adorned the Acropolis in Athens.
But in Bloomsbury, the artistic heart of London dominated by the museum, the mood is adamant: nothing will be returned. In fact, an act of Parliament forbids the disposal of any of the museum’s possessions except for duplications—and, as David Wilson, British Museum director, explains, “Restitution is against our philosophy as well as our statutes.”
His resolve has deep historical roots, for the British Museum has been displaying, classifying and interpreting world culture for more than two centuries, although the grandiose building where most of its collections are now housed was not completed until 1852. Before that most objects were kept in a
genteel, but decaying, house, and the Elgin Marbles stood in an ungainly shed. The prime splendor of classical art, the Marbles were rescued in 1801 by the British ambassador to Turkey, which then controlled Greece, from almost certain destruction.
Yet many of the museum’s collections were acquired in a less laudable fashion. Throughout the 19th century, from India to Nigeria, Peru to Iraq, the riches of world culture were looted by British explorers confident in their imperial faith. Nowadays as many as four million visitors a year, twice as many as a decade ago, come to see the glorious results of this brutal acquisitiveness.
Although the museum is a centre of international scholarship, on a bright afternoon tourists can usually be seen lolling about on the wide front steps of the south entrance. Unknowingly, many mimic the poses in the 19th-century allegorical frieze over their heads—Richard Westmacott’s Progress of Civilization. Despite the
casual appearance, security is tight and has been so ever since 1845, when a deranged visitor used a Babylonian statue to smash a precious vessel of Roman glass, the Portland Vase, into 200 fragments.
This same concern for security meant that, until the 1950s, the museum refused to lend anything to anyone. But this policy has recently been softened. In 1975, for example, selected watercolors of the great English painter J.M.W. Turner were sent to other galleries and museums in Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, the United States and the Soviet Union in celebration of the bicentenary of his birth.
The British Museum’s role as a universal treasure-house means that it is continually looking out for artifacts and artworks. An annual purchase grant of £1.6 million ($3.5 million) from the British government is supplemented by an undisclosed amount (suspected to be about £500,000 [$1.1 million] a year) from gifts and bequests. The most famous and lucrative of these comes from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who divided all his posthumous royalties among the National Gallery of Ireland, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the British Museum—in gratitude for the many happy and inspiring hours he had spent there.
Despite such occasional displays of largess, the museum suffers chronic financial difficulties. Yet a 1974 decision to impose an admission charge aroused a wave of protest and was quickly reversed. To date, the only critical threats to the institution have been caused by war. In 1917 the British Air Force Board planned on using the galleries to store airplanes; luckily, they were found to be unsuitable. In the Second World War German bombs destroyed about 250,000 of the library’s volumes, some of them irreplaceable. The museum’s treasures, however, had already been removed to the relative safety of tunnels under a Welsh mountain, country houses in rural England and the London
underground system. What would happen in the event of another war is an official secret, but it is thought that the most valuable items would go, along with the Royal Family and the greatest paintings from the National Gallery, to remote shelters in Wales or Scotland.
A more immediate problem, however, is the demand for restitution of the museum’s possessions by their countries of origin. The mere suggestion causes unease in Britain’s intellectual community, and there is no support for the idea from any of the major political parties. London teacher and activist Mike Barber, however, is one of a small group of Englishmen convinced that the Elgin Marbles belong back on the Acropolis. “To really appreciate a work of art, it should be seen in the context in which it was created,” he says. “Today, we’re not justified in keeping these statues on the grounds that the Turks were destroying them 150 years ago.”
British Museum officials resent the suggestion that in holding onto objects gained originally by pillaging and in maintaining the very concept of a “general repository” in an age of specialization the museum is somehow old-fashioned. For his part, Director Wilson says, “Nowadays we are trying to be actively international, rather than narrowly national, and in this the British Museum is absolutely up-to-date.”
No matter how strong the clamor from abroad, the British Museum is not about to let anything go. Says a defiant Wilson: “We are an important element in world culture, and if you start to destroy any part of it, you gnaw at the roots of universal culture.” In the cultural domain, at least, Britannia will continue to rule.
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