My initial reaction on entering the British Museum for the first time was wonderment and amazement. The sheer number of priceless ancient articles is mind-boggling. The Rosetta Stone, the Gilgamesh Flood tablet, the Elgin Marbles. The Egyptian mummies, the head and arm of the huge Ramesses statue, the large number of Assyrian statues.
But then, something niggles at the edge of consciousness. This is the British Museum, so where are the British artefacts? Ah, there are the sections on Roman Britain, and look – there are the Lewis chessmen – but all in all, the vast majority seem to come from elsewhere. The story of the Elgin Marbles is unfortunately, rather typical – a rich Englishman goes on an expedition, and picks up all the interesting things he can find, and hauls them off back to Old Blighty.
Now, admittedly, a lot of that happened in the nineteenth century, back when Britannia ruled the waves, and the sun never set on the Empire. When the average Englishman considered that the Queen was in charge of the whole world, and that the savages out there couldn’t be trusted with the safekeeping of these valuable articles.
But these days, I would have thought that people here would generally have a little bit of a cringe at that sort of attitude. Certainly the type of people I run into seem to feel that way. But with the recent rioting in Greece, this was a letter written to the editor of a London newspaper:
Watching the sad scenes of Athens burning, I can only say how glad I am that the Elgin Marbles remain safe in London and have not been returned.
I wonder if the price of yet another bailout of Greece could lead to the transfer of the remaining portion of the Parthenon to London, where it could be reunited with the pieces removed by Lord Elgin to the British Museum for safekeeping and the whole rebuilt in the East End after the Olympics have moved on?
Ah well, some people spend their lives living in the past. And if one is planning to do this, the British Museum is probably the best place in the world to do it.