Fri, 16 Oct 2009 Feature Article

Hawass Requests Rosetta Stone: Will British Museum Make A Bold Conciliatory Gesture?

Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in British Museum, London, United KingdomRosetta Stone, Egypt, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom

In an article entitled Egypt asks British Museum for the Rosetta Stone after Louvre victory, the British Daily Telegraph reports that soon after the Louvre has agreed to return the stolen frescoes, Zahi Hawass, the dynamic Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities has asked the British Museum for a loan of the Rosetta Stone. The Telegraph also reports that: “Mr. Hawass acknowledged that seeking the return of the Rosetta Stone was a different proposition from the painted fragments in the Louvre.” The paper adds that: “A spokesman said the British Museum “enjoys good relations” with Egypt and promised to consider Mr Hawass's request.”(1)

A reader who has not followed discussions on restitution and the efforts by Hawass to secure the return of looted Egyptian artefacts might be forgiven for thinking that emboldened by his recent success with the Louvre, Hawass is now turning attention to the British Museum and making demands. The truth however, is that the request for the return of the Rosetta Stone has been made long ago by the Egyptians. There are at least reports on this demand as far back as 2003.

The same Daily Telegraph carried an article By Charlotte Edwardes and Catherine Milnerin in 2003 entitled ”Egypt demands return of the Rosetta Stone” which reported inter alia as follows:

Last night Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, was unavailable for comment, but in the past he has described the personal significance of the stone. "I remember the first visit I made to the museum was with my father at the age of eight," he said. "I was fascinated by the Rosetta Stone. I was thrilled to be able to touch it - it was uncovered at the time - and physically connect with history."

If the stone were to be moved, it would be seen by far fewer people than is the case today: the Cairo Museum has about 2.5 million visitors a year, compared to the 5.5 million who visit the British Museum annually.(2)

Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, was reported by Richard Lacayo to have said in an interview in 2007 that:

“The Egyptians have never questioned the Trustees' ownership of the Stone. The Trustees have received a letter from the Egyptians asking the museum to lend the Stone for a number of months. So it's a perfectly ordinary loan request, of exactly the sort that has never been received for the Parthenon sculptures. The Egyptians have started from the position that legal title is absolutely clear and that they want to borrow it like anything else and then return it.”(3)

Hawass also made his demands in an interview with Riz Khan on Al Jazeera television in 2007. (4)

It is clear then that the request for the return/loan of the Rosetta Stone is nothing new which the British Museum may now consider. The important question is what has been going on since the earlier demands and what has the British Museum, that now appears willing to consider the request, been doing?

Will the British Museum now go through the usual repertory of justifications/explanations for holding on to cultural artefacts from other countries? Will it argue:

a) That the object was legally acquired even if the nature of the object, its history and circumstance of acquisition may put into doubt the legality and legitimacy of the acquisition? This first line of defence has been used in the cases of the Rosetta Stone, Nefertiti, the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes;

b) That because of the nature or the physical characteristics of the object it cannot travel even though the object travelled thousands of kilometres in the olden days from its place of origin to its present location. This second line of defence has also been applied to Nefertiti, Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes;

c) That one cannot trust the other museum to be able to look after the object which had been well kept for thousands of years before it was looted. This insulting argument has been thrown at Egyptians, Nigerians and Greeks;

d) That one cannot trust the other museum to abide by the terms of an agreement that may be signed. This argument is always in the background even if it is not expressly stated. But is there any evidence for this widespread belief and insinuation?

Instead of a rehearsal of the usual arguments which have not convinced anybody, not even officials of the museum, British Museum and the Government could decide on a bold reconciliatory gesture which would also affect similar future claims, by showing understanding for the feelings of other peoples and governments. This would also confirm that the British Museum sees itself as part of a community of museums which are there to serve all and not only those in London or with easy access to the British capital, despite immigration restrictions and the costs involved. A proposal could be made along the following lines:

a) That independent of the legal situation regarding the Rosetta Stone, the parties agree that the Rosetta Stone shall be put at the disposal of the Government and people of Egypt under terms and conditions to be agreed upon by both parties;

b) That the Rosetta Stone shall be returned to London under conditions and terms to be agreed upon by the parties.

c) A Commission shall be set up to examine all outstanding issues between the parties as regards cultural artefacts claimed or requested.

We are well aware that the above proposals may shock some of the unconditional supporters of the British Museum and the so-called universal museums for whom the very thought that an object may return to its country of origin, is an unpardonable heresy and anathema.

Whatever the British Museum decides, it should hold its official in reins to prevent a comment like the following: (Vivian Davies, Egyptian curator at the British Museum, told BBC News): "What curator in the British Museum would actually want to see leave an object that is absolutely core to our function as an institution that not only presents Egyptian antiquities but also Egyptian antiquities as a part of the civilisation of the world." (5)

Those holding on to cultural objects of others should at least be careful in their choice of words.

Kwame Opoku, 16 October, 2009.

3. See also

4. Riz Khan Saving Egypt's antiquities


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