The UK's past means disputes over its museum contents are inevitable

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 18 January 2019 in Comment

A fresh row has emerged between the Egyptian Government’s Antiquities Repatriation Department and the Museum of Scotland, over a casing stone from the Great Pyramid of Giza

Image credit: Holyrood

Everyone loves a pirate. Not a real, modern-day pirate, obviously. Not some skinny Somali kid, born in extreme poverty and armed with a Kalashnikov. More like a cartoon pirate, with an eye-patch and a wooden leg and a parrot. Everyone loves an old pirate. Basically, the sort that never really existed.

In reality, pirates were far more complex than the cartoon image suggests. Some, for example, were in the employment of the state, under the more legitimate title of privateer. Sanctioned by the sovereign, privateers would be sent to rob and pillage from foreign ships and ports during a time of war.

Sir Frances Drake, famous for defeating the Spanish armada, was one such example. Regarded as a hero in England, Drake was best known in Spain as a blood-thirsty pirate. King Philip II is thought to have offered millions, in its modern equivalent, for his head.

If you go to Cartagena now, on the northern coast of Colombia, you can still see his legacy, where the old sea defences, built to defend against Drake and his colleagues, still stand. He attacked the city in April 1586 with a fleet of 23 ships and 3,000 men, burning 200 houses as well as the city’s cathedral, and only departed after receiving a ransom.

The difference between a pirate and a privateer is one of legitimacy. A privateer would leave the British Isles with a piece of paper confirming they had the right to rob, but once they were halfway across the world their behaviour would often become far murkier. Some would switch between pirate and privateer whenever it suited.

And so, in the same way that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, the main difference between a privateer and pirate is one of opinion.

Of course the British Empire’s role in pillaging much of the world is well known. British museums, the modern equivalent of a pirate’s chest, are full of the stuff. Loot that was once hidden is now proudly displayed.

The Elgin Marbles are one example, though in Greece, having little to do with the town of Elgin or the Earl of Elgin – who took them in the early 19th century – they prefer to call them the Parthenon Marbles. The earl claimed he had permission from the Ottomans, who ruled Greece, to remove them, though the proof for this seems to be shaky at best.

The dispute has been long-running, and that’s the difficulty with taking other people’s stuff. They might want it back.

And now a fresh row seems to have emerged, this time between the Egyptian Government’s Antiquities Repatriation Department and the Museum of Scotland, over a casing stone from the Great Pyramid of Giza.

As the only casing stone from the pyramid to be displayed anywhere outside Egypt, the limestone will go on public view for the first time since it came to Scotland.

The problem is that, although the museum insists that a British engineer was given permission to take the stone in 1872, the Egyptian authorities are less convinced, with the ministry of antiquities now requesting official documentation to show how the stone left Egypt and when the museum obtained it.

As Shabaan Abdel Gawwad, supervisor-general of Egypt’s antiquities repatriation department put it: “We want to see all certificates of possession for other Egyptian artefacts due to be exhibited in the museum as well.”

He added: “If it’s proven that this block or any other artefact were found to have been illegally smuggled, necessary measures will be taken to repatriate them.”

For their part, officials from the Museum of Scotland said they were confident that the appropriate permissions and documentation were obtained.

And so maybe it will all be resolved amicably, though given the cultural and emotional significance of these sorts of artefacts, it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if the row rumbles on.

After all, when it comes to the contents of museums across the Western world, one man’s artefact is another’s pirate treasure.

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