Museum Blog

Antiquities in War and Peace

Posted 3/16/2011 12:03 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

In the midst of the Egyptian crisis several weeks ago came a startling and provocative article in the Wall Street Journal. Alex Joffe, an archaeologist and historian, argued that the attacks on the Egyptian Museum held a lesson for another controversial issue: the battle over Greece's Parthenon Marbles held in the British Museum since 1816. 

Joffe summarizes the recent demands by Egypt for cultural treasures in European museums. Then he asks, given the recent violence to the Egyptian Museum, "can Egypt even look after what it has? This question is now out in the open."   

Last year, economic riots rocked Athens, the potential home of the treasured Parthenon Marbles. Joffe concludes that the marbles, and other such disputed objects, should not be returned. "Unfree and unstable countries," he writes, "have a long way to go before they will treat antiquities in the manner of most European countries or the U.S."

The only problem with Joffe's argument that I can see is that he fails to take his proposal to its logical end.

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For millennia cultural objects have been the target of iconoclasts and extremists, ideologues and demagogues. It was the recognition of the need to protect heritage in the midst of war that lead to the creation of the 1954 Hague Convention, an international accord, which in part provides for the temporary removal of heritage during armed conflict. The Hague Convention was created because its creators recognized that art and antiquities are risk in many times and many places.

It is not just Egypt that is the victim of violence. During World War II, much of London was leveled. In fact, the very gallery designed to house the Parthenon Marbles was hit by a German bomb in 1940. Other incendiaries destroyed more galleries and burned some 150,000 books in the museum. A generation later, an IRA bomb caused irreparable losses to England's Shropshire Regimental Museum. The IRA's armed campaign did not end until 2005.

The logic of Joffe's argument would thus suggest that Britain should have removed its antiquities between 1940 and 2005 to a much safer country--perhaps a place like New Zealand, the world's safest country.

Then again, it's not just England that has faced such terrible violence. Consider the U.S. capitol, which suffered major riots there in 1919, 1968, and 1991, and also a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Is it really such a stretch of the imagination that our nation's attic might be the target of hostility today? Not at all. Joffe's advice, I think, would be that the Smithsonian Institution should be moved immediately to Japan (the world's second safest country), at least until the War on Terror ends.   

Of course, one problem with the world's safest countries is that they face real threats from another source: Mother Nature. As we have seen so tragically in recent months, these Pacific Rim nations are vulnerable to the terrifying wreckage unleashed by earthquakes. Clearly, neither New Zealand nor Japan can ensure the absolute safety of their heritage.     

What to do? If we take Joffe's argument seriously, then the conclusion is that we should move all of the world's antiquities to the world's safest place: we must move humanity's cultural heritage to the bottom of Yucca Mountain--built to house the U.S.'s nuclear waste--thousands of feet below ground, where they would be safe from nearly all conceivable human and natural threats.   

But how many visitors will be willing, or able, to go to our new Yucca Mountain Museum? Not many at all. What then would be the point of it all?

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Instead of following Joffe's well-intended but specious argument, let's take an honest accounting of the world, which acknowledges that violence and destruction is a constant menace to heritage everywhere. Contrary to Joffe's claims, Britain does not have an exclusive purchase on peace. And the Egyptian turmoil does not represent an exclusive threat to humanity's heritage. Every country takes its turn at war and peace. 

The risk of allowing each nation and community to care for its own heritage--where it can be accessible and visited at its point of origin--is that it at times may face destruction. Every time, every day a museum opens its doors, it chances many perils, from fire and floods, to theft and terrorism. But the response to these risks is not the maintenance of a status quo in which wealthy, Western "free and stable" nations are empowered to decide the fate of other people's heritage.   

Rather, the answer lies in building local, national, and global awareness of these risks; investing in preventative measures during amity; and fostering international coalitions to respond to threats to cultural heritage as they arise. This is actually what the 1954 Hague Convention is all about. Notably, the U.S. just ratified portions of the Convention in 2009; the United Kingdom, where the Parthenon Marbles reside, has yet to even do so. 

Joffe would do better to focus less on arguing that Britain should keep Egypt's treasures, and more on encouraging real solutions--like getting England to ratify treaties that protect our shared heritage, in times of both war and peace.

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