Scotland is to welcome home some of its most iconic relics from the British Museum next May, in a loan deal that sees the famous Lewis Chessmen toured around the country for two years. Yet politicians hailed the move as a ‘step sideways’, as the BM all but ruled out their permanent repatriation. Members of the Scottish National Party have been claiming a cultural victory this week, as it was confirmed on the weekend that 24 of the BM’s 82 charismatic 12th century carvings would be winging their way to four Scottish museums next year. Eleven of the 93 pieces are already on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, six of which will be joining the treasures’ first tour in over 14 years.
The SNP has already contributed 75,000 to the cost of exhibiting the Chessmen, which will first be moved between the National Museum, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Shetland Museum. The pieces will then return home to the Isle of Lewis for five months, at Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean. The Chessmen, made from walrus ivory and thought to be Norwegian in origin, haven’t returned to the Outer Hebrides island since their dramatic discovery in 1831 beneath a sand dune.
Yet while Scottish Culture Minister Mike Russell realises the coup his SNP colleagues have pulled off with securing their loan, he admits it will be another matter altogether bringing the Chessmen home for good: “We havent moved in our position, but of course the overall purpose is to give people in Scotland better access to these items,” he says. “Weve able to negotiate that, at least on a temporary basis. I think this tour has arisen from the British Museum recognising that we want better access.
“What we have here is a useful step,” adds Mr Russell. “I think its a step sideways rather than a step forward but were grateful to the National Museum of Scotland and to the British Museum for bringing the exhibition about. However, it is clearly not a permanent solution.” Opinions south of the border have echoed Mr Russell’s senitments, with his UK counterpart Margaret Hodget branding the Chessmen’s repatriation “a lot of nonsense” in January last year.
And while some Scottish officials are still hopeful the iconic artefacts can enjoy a permanent homecoming, the British Museum’s deputy chairman Bonnie Greer has all but shut the door on efforts to move them from London: “The BMs credo is that we are a museum for the world and that is not just a motto,” she says. “As far as Im concerned on a personal level, (the Chessmen) will always remain at the British Museum – they will always be available for everyone in the world to see them, they will always go on tour, they will always be ambassadors for Scotland.” The British Museum is certainly no stranger to repatriation rows: this year alone has seen the world-renowned institution embittered in battles for the Benin Bronzes, Rosetta Stone and, of course, the Elgin Marbles. Do you think the Lewis Chessmen should be returned to Scotland? Or do you have an opinion on any other contentious artefacts, such as the Bust of Nefertiti or the Pergamon Altar? Don’t hesitate to voice your opinions using the comments box below.