Dr Zahi Hawass’ quest for the Rosetta Stone is gathering pace. And with the SCA chief set to visit the British Museum tonight to promote his latest book and holding a repatriation conference next March, it’s an issue which could become a lot more incendiary in the coming weeks.
Hot on the tail of Heritage Key’s own survey to decide whether the BM should return some of its highest-prized artefacts, national newspaper the Guardian has probed its own readership on the Rosetta Stone’s repatriation.
That’s not to say the Guardian’s poll is particularly far-reaching. Readers are simply given two options to the question, Should the British Museum give the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?
- ‘Yes. They stole part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.’
- ‘No. It’s about global cultural heritage. The country of origin doesn’t matter.’
Incidentally, at time of publication the Guardian’s poll stands at 44.2% in favour of the Rosetta Stone going back; 55.8% thinking it should stay put. Though worded differently, it’s a different outcome than our own Heritage Key poll, where 54% believe the BM should be sending some of its artefacts back to the country they came from. 37% think otherwise. Yet the HK poll encompasses a world of other debated treasures at the London museum, including the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.
There are, as with all debates, shades of grey. And when you’re talking about the history of the Rosetta Stone, there are more greys than Gordon Brown’s suit closet. There are few middle grounds, to be fair, except that of the loan option, something both sides have repeatedly refused. But there are a myriad reasons the Stone should stay in Britain, and just as many why it should be winging back from whence it came – many more than whether it was stolen or not.
Let’s briefly run through the major issues (if you want a longer read try Ann’s earlier piece on the Stone, my article on Dr Hawass’ claims, or Malcolm’s feature on the ethics of repatriation). With much higher attendance rates, more people will see the Stone at the British Museum than in Cairo. If we’re talking about a global heritage item this seems a fairly convincing argument from the offset. Yet it costs more for most people to get to and to stay in London; a trip to Cairo would inevitably boost attendance figures too – though surely not enough to beat the BM.
Some still peddle the idea that the Stone is safer in Britain. This doesn’t rub with me, seeing as Egypt’s own museums are, for the most part, in excellent condition, and, while not at the cutting edge of museum design, are ably suited to holding something like the Rosetta Stone. They’ve had the golden death mask of King Tut for 80 years and they’ve managed not to blow it up, lose it or give it away, for example. And if the Grand Egyptian Museum is ever completed (it’s a big ‘if’) Egypt will have a museum to rival any on the planet.
Then there’s the issue of fragility. Some argue the Rosetta Stone is just too frail to be lugged halfway across the world, and claim it’s better to have a pristine Rosetta Stone in London than a ruined one in Cairo. This is largely an issue of science. But if experts can haul King Tut’s treasures across the US, why would there be a problem moving a giant slab of solid stone?
There are also wider problems surrounding the link between repatriation and archaeology, but you can read my earlier article for that can of worms. For now the Rosetta Stone remains one of the hottest topics in Egyptology. And with Dr Hawass visiting the British Museum tonight, one guesses it’s an issue that won’t lie down in a hurry. To BM or not to BM; that is the question.
What’s your opinion on this issue?Tell us what you think the British Museum should do below.