FINDERS KEEPERS? — Maybe Not for Europe

By Patricia Sauthoff

The media, the British media at least, is atwitter as Egyptian officials are asking for the return of hundreds of artifacts to their original home. Both the BBC and Telegraph (in a story that desperately needs a copyedit) are reporting that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is calling out European museums for the return of hundreds of artifacts, including one of the most famous artifacts in the West, the Rosetta Stone. SCA is also considering calling on UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in order to get the artifacts back.

Now, I can kinda understand where Egypt is coming from. After touring both the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and the Louvre last fall I couldn’t help but wonder if there even are any Egyptian artifacts left in Egypt. The British Museum has case after case, stuffed with mummies. These rooms were also some of the museum’s busiest.

The Louvre, while spreading things out a bit, makes the British Museum collection look a bit shabby. Whatever the British Museum has, the Louvre has more.

The bottom floor of the Louvre is packed with burial tombs, spread out so that museum-goers can see them up close and from a distance.

All this is educational, as well as beautiful. Westerners have ooh-ed and ah-ed at Egyptian art and architecture for hundreds of years. Who of us doesn’t want our own pyramid? So, certainly, having these artifacts in the West is not only popular, but teaches us about the history of a people we have long attempted to emulate.

There comes a point though, that the hoarding gets to be too much (see image above). While romanticism is a great escape — and isn’t that really half the reason we go to museums — taking cultural heritage away is dangerous. One museum doesn’t need hundreds of similar items to get the point across. A healthy selection of differing items is enough to spark the imagination.

When I toured the British Museum, I noticed a trend within the various rooms. In rooms of Egyptian art the viewers were mostly European, where in the rooms of Asian art the viewers were primarily Asian. I asked a few of these people why they were looking at this particular art. A Japanese man told me that this collection was better than anything he’d seen inside Japan; he’d travelled halfway around the world to look at art from him homeland. On the flip-side, a Chinese couple stared at the displays of Tibetan art. When I approached them they told me they’d never seen anything from Tibet before and didn’t know much about it. I, an American, knew more about what the religious artifacts before them were. This couple, highly educated, didn’t even know Tibetans were Buddhist. In this instance the collections, which are a tiny fraction of the size of the Egyptian ones, benefit many by being outside their homeland.

Of course, in the US, since 1990, we’ve had the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires artifacts associate with burial and death to be returned to the tribes to whom they originally belonged. If an act such as this were to be passed in Europe it would devastate museums. Hopefully, Egyptian leaders and European ones can reach an agreement that allows the return of some objects, with others remain in their current homes for scholars and the public to study and enjoy.

All photos by Patricia Sauthoff.

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