Recently, my wife’s daughter and son-in-law asked her if she were listening to any good podcasts. [There’s another word I just don’t understand. It sounds like something out of science fiction. “They spread the virus to the unsuspecting planet via a podcast.” And isn’t that how the Droids We Were Looking For got off of the Imperial star cruiser?]
My wife replied that she was under the impression podcasts were so ten-years-ago. Did anybody listen to them anymore? They assured her that such broadcasts were, indeed, making a comeback among the technically-savvy, and they recommended some they thought she would like.
When we take road trips, we like to listen to audio books. It’s incredible how short Simon Vance’s reading of a James Bond novel can make a four-hour drive. I have an uncle who was infamous in the family for reading actual books when he drove long distances in the 1970s. I read whenever I get the chance, but I’m not willing to go that far. So the last time we traveled, my wife chose to play a recording of Neil MacGregor’s podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects. [I’m sad to admit that I have owned the book since its publication,
but I have never gotten around to reading it. My wife was not surprised to learn that I was familiar with this work; we knew we were perfect for each other when we discovered, during the dating phase, that each of us owned the same edition of Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.]
Anyway, the book/podcast series starts off by examining the Mummy of Hornedjitef, from Egypt in the third century B.C. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum in London, asks an Egyptian writer what she thinks about the mummy’s location in England instead of Egypt. Her reply is so unexpected that it deserves quotation verbatim:
Ultimately, it’s probably no bad thing to have Egyptian obelisks and stones and statues sprinkled all over the world. It reminds us of ages of colonialism, yes, but it also reminds the world of our common heritage.
As I did, you probably thought she would launch into a diatribe about the culturally-insensitive and blatantly-unfair pillaging of ancient art treasures by the western world. It seems to be a part of everyone’s talking points. In November of 2011, Smithsonian ran a cover story about the legal battle between the Italian government and the Getty Museum in California over possession of a statue of Aphrodite.
Italy’s argument hinged on the claim that looters had obtained and exported the statue illegally. Deeper down, of course, lives the idea that ancient art treasures belong with the culture that produced them. Who could take issue with that?
[You guessed this was coming, right?]
When I listened to Ahdaf Soueif’s words in A History of the World in 100 Objects, I suddenly realized that the cultures and governments of countries such as Egypt, Greece, and Italy have little or no relation to the cultures that produced the archaeological objects in question. The Egypt of the Pharaohs came under the control of the Greeks during the time Hornedjitef lived, then Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Muslim/Ottoman rule in turn. Islamic law and culture dominate today, and these would view polytheistic ancient Egypt, with its highly-representational art, as heretical. The Egypt of romantic imagination did not beget modern Egyptian society.
Similar stories describe the post-classical histories of Greece and Italy. [Did you notice that the Italian government was fighting for the return of a statue made by Greeks during their colonization of the Italian peninsula? Is there no end to empire building?] The artistic, cultural, and political traditions of the peoples who built the pyramids and mummified bodies, carved the Elgin Marbles and invented democracy, and built the Colosseum and made Christianity official, disappeared to history. Their accomplishments were not passed down to us in a direct line from the source. We only know of them today because of western archaeologists (who weren’t responsible for ending the cultures in question) and the looting of artifacts. As Soueif hinted, this may not be a bad thing.
Consider the following: a former United States president goes on safari to Africa in the early twentieth century. There, he shoots hundreds of animals of different species.
Unconscionable, right? Not so fast. His expedition brings back the taxidermied animals and populates the American Museum of Natural History with them. These displays educate and fascinate budding zoologists in a time before before easy travel and electronic communication, and inspire them to create the environmental conservation movements of today. In effect, a few individual animals gave their lives so their species might have the chance to survive.
Or this: colonizing Spanish introduce wine grapes to the American southwest and California in the sixteenth century. [Oh, the humanity.] There, the grape plants develop resistance to insects that cause a blight in France during the nineteenth century. Grafting these American plants with the European ones helps to save the French wine industry.
Sometimes removing a thing is the only way to preserve it. Recall what happened to the Egyptian antiquities which were displayed in Cairo during the most recent revolution. I’m not saying that civilized nations and people should go around the world randomly taking over countries and stealing objects. But the only real connection between modern Greeks and ancient Greeks is an accident of geography. They happen to be living in the same place.
Say you moved to the town of Princeton, New Jersey for a job, found a house you could afford, and bought it. While doing renovations, you discovered a box of old notebooks in the attic, and when you read through them you discovered they contained previously-unknown scribblings of Albert Einstein, who had been friends with an earlier owner of the house. Of course they would legally belong to you, and you could keep them, sell them to the highest bidder, use them to start your wood stove, or do anything else you wanted with them. If someone broke in and stole them, it would be theft. But, of course, the “right” thing to do might be to send them off to a museum, where they could be authenticated and studied for the increased knowledge they could give to all of humanity. Maybe the thief was an employee of the Institute for Advanced Studies, which desperately wanted Einstein’s notebooks where he had worked while in the U. S. But wait- didn’t Einstein do his best [read: “only Nobel-winning”] work in Switzerland? Doesn’t the Swiss government have some claim on the newly-discovered writings? No matter what, the court of public opinion finds you selfish if you keep the notebooks. What a mess.
In truth, everyone who has the chance to see a masterpiece in person, rather than in a book or on television, becomes better for it. No modern electronic replica can ever replace the experience of an up-close encounter with the real thing, any more than reading about an ancient idea called “democracy” could ever replace living in a free and representative society. Even better, the preservation of democracy in western countries can come full circle and inspire modern Greeks, living in the birthplace of the idea, to replace a monarchy with a republic, as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The statues, mummies, art, and ideas may not have left their places of origin willingly, but in a way, I’m glad they did. Think of them as ambassadors.