On January 28, the Egyptian Museum was raided. Looters broke into the museum amidst turmoil caused by the country’s explosive political climate. According to BBC, “70 artifacts were knocked over or damaged” and 18 items disappeared.
Meanwhile, behind the venerable, monumental pillars of the British Museum, the even more distinguished Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles lie, safe.
Recent events, like the uprisings in Egypt and upheaval in Greece, demonstrate that these two nations are currently too politically and socially tumultuous to house the historic artifacts. The British Museum keeps these precious, ancient objects far more secure than they would be in their original countries. However, without the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, Egypt and Greece are deprived of a massive amount of tourism revenue. It is imperative that the UK provide the appropriate reparations to these nations because it has undoubtedly collected profits from the displaced antiquities.
As recently as December 2009, Egyptian officials made a request to loan the Rosetta Stone. The British Museum was not too far off-base when it allegedly responded by asking about the security of Egypt’s museums. Demonstrably, Egypt was a tinderbox. A spark — revolution in a nearby country — is all it would take to set Egypt aflame.
Again, as recently as 2009, the New York Times published an article, in conjunction with the opening of the Acropolis Museum, in which Greek President Karolos Papoulias said, “It's time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”
But is Greece much less of a tinderbox than Egypt was? Nope.
The global economic crisis put Greece in a bit of a testy economic situation. The crisis, along with Greece’s integration into the E.U., has made the country a hotbed for riots and protests since the climactic 2008 Greek riots.
The raid on the Egyptian Museum was bad, but a future museum break-in could be even worse. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the National Museum of Iraq was looted and “at least 13,864 objects were stolen.” This incident stands out as one of the most salient, recent examples of the threat unstable political and social situations pose to the safety of antiquities.
Still, a 1970 UN agreement states that artifacts belong to their country of origin and that other nations are obliged to return stolen artifacts. Make no mistake; these artifacts are imperial plunders, acquired by Britain through one of humanity’s most horrific practices. Although I support Britain’s retention of these items, I cannot make it clear enough that I stand firmly against all manifestations of imperialism across history. Furthermore, I sympathize with the UN agreement, and hope that one day Britain can return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt and the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
However, today is not that day.
Until that day comes, Britain is obliged to make a compromise. The country must demonstrate that it is committed to preserving, not stealing, the cultural histories of Egypt and Greece. Britain must provide the two countries full monetary compensation. Some argue that these artifacts are priceless, and there is no way to quantify their cultural import. However, a displaced artifact is better than a destroyed artifact; in Egypt and Greece, the fate of the objects would be uncertain. Within the grand fortress-like walls of the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles run little risk of being harmed.
Photo Credit: markandrew