Putting Humanity’s Past at Risk
The Egyptian Museum was Endangered by Looters. Courageous citizens resisted them until the army arrived to take control. Many of them shouted “This is not Baghdad,” recalling the 2003 looting in Iraq after the invasion.
Museums around the world are under pressure to repatriate artifacts. The Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back, the Iraqis want a long list of items in museums around the world, and the Egyptians want the bust of Queen Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone, as well as Cleopatra’s Needle from New York. Here in the U.S., we came within a hair’s breadth of losing the Kennewick Man skeleton.
We should be careful. While priceless historical relics have been destroyed in the West by warfare and other calamities, the level of protection elsewhere is far less secure, and the political volatility is a lot greater. Also, there is a chilling risk that irreplaceable relics might be deliberately destroyed by fanatics with some ideological axe to grind. Recall the destroyed Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan (if there was a time to invade Afghanistan, it was then, months before 9-11). Just imagine people of a similar mindset destroying Petra in Jordan or the monuments of Egypt. Centuries-old mosques were leveled in Bosnia by the Serbs. And one can easily picture Christian or Muslim anti-evolutionists destroying the hominid trackways and fossils of East Africa.
Repatriation is one of those movements cheerfully embraced by people more eager to feel good than think, and by corrupt governments hoping to profit in some way or another. We’re probably safe in returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, where they’ll join the caryatids of the Erechtheion in a climate controlled case, because the outdoor environment of Athens is too corrosive. But if we’re going to repatriate to other countries, we’d better be very certain the relics will be strictly guarded. And there should be absolutely no concept of copyrighting relics. We’ve probably gotten all the information we can from the Rosetta Stone, but if it’s sent home, and someone decides to loot or destroy it, having an exact copy on display is better than nothing. Whatever moral claims the home country may have on an artifact, they do not compare with the right of all humanity to know its past.