Keeping the British Museum Safe in New Zealand
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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