The monuments men (and the people who made them)

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk
Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Summer has drawn to an end and I’m reminded of a trip H & I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, followed by lunch in the splendid Dining Room restaurant and a wander around the neighbouring Museum of the History of Science. Having been a troublesome child, H has turned into an interesting and interested teenager. We haven’t seen the film The Monuments Men, but getting a 16-y-o’s take on the collection of relics makes me realise how differently this generation sees the world (again). Surprisingly, H is not of the ‘We should return them to their original owners’ school (George Clooney on the Elgin Marbles) or in the ‘We should destroy them, they’re not PC’ camp (Prince William on ivory) but ‘I can’t really see the point of viewing such things out of context.’

Imagine, he says, taking a brick from a modern London landmark building and carefully placing it in a case in a city in X number of years, whereupon an endless number of people file past it in wonder evermore.

Is it because in times past that we understood there could be no hope of going to see Egyptian treasures in situ that my generation considered museums an interesting place to visit? Back in 1972 schoolchildren had the Pharaohs drummed into them for what seemed like endless lessons, when the British Museum hosted a Treasures of (I can still spell it) Tutankhamun exhibition. London was as remote to me, as a small child in Norfolk, as Egypt would have been to all the flapper girls excited into Tut fever by Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb in the Twenties. The proximity to a real archaeological site was the reason that 35,000 people queued around the block on the first day to see the ruins of the Temple of Mithras unearthed in London 50 years ago. Unless you were privileged, driven and determined and could overcome the cost, dangers and health hazards associated with pursuing your passion, (let alone had the time to spend on such journeys) a bit of earth and a few low walls in a giant hole in the ground around the corner from your workplace were the best you could hope for back then.

But H’s dismissive comments about why you’d bring a bit of what you’d seen back to your homeland got me thinking. Was that so your fellow countrymen could see something of the fascinating artefacts they would never otherwise see – a bit of education for the masses –or was it a case of showing off? A spot of I’ve got something you’ll never have or was it genuinely to educate the poor and worthy? Or else was it a compulsive acquisitional gene indulging in a spot of one-upmanship?

The collectors, Pitt Rivers and Ashmole, the Rothschilds, The Ephrussis, the Sainsburys and many more – were they thinking how future generations would come, ooh and aah and gaze in awe that anyone could have made so much effort over a tiny statuette? Or would they have looked at the cynical 16-year-old and pitied the poor people?

In his defence, my son doesn’t have many foreign holidays, but a few summers ago he visited Pompeii with his father and stepmother, and last year came to Venice with his stepfather and me. What surprised us was the honest pleasure he took from seeing the churches, palazzos and piazzas and even the art in situ. I’ve recommended that his next trip is to Turkey for sheer mind-blowing quantity and quality of treasures. My first visit to the Topkapi Palace 30 or more years ago was like stepping into a fairytale world. Not only could you see the caskets and collections of the Ottoman sultans, you could stand alongside them, since so few were behind glass and so many were packed into the displays. My aunt said the vaults were packed to the gunnels, and for that reason the less famous of the exhibits were rotated. During that holiday I watched horrified in the Blue Mosque as visitors made souvenirs of the miniature mosaic tiles that formed the Christ and Mary images on the walls. One week later, by contrast, at the Jorvik Museum in York, I sedately and reverently shuffled past the Coppergate Helmet, hermetically sealed in a glass case complete with a hygrometer. My Turkish uncle laughed when I complained about the Turks’ casual approach to their treasures and said that Turkish civilisation was so old, people could dig up antiquities in their gardens while trying to plant their vegetables. Which went some way to explaining their casual approach to anything less than the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Times had changed when I took a return visit to the Topkapi more recently. Far from being ignored as we reached out to touch ancient clocks, let alone picked tiles off the walls, we were corralled and shuffled along past display cabinets in a manner befitting of treasures of such rarity and worth. Part of my thought it was a shame that the Western approach had crossed the Golden Horn.

Which brings me back how worthwhile H’s generation will consider the behind-glass viewing encounter. Virtual experience in glorious colour is nearly as good as being able to dig it up for oneself. It’s just unfortunate the technology wasn’t available when the treasure seekers were despoiling other people’s countries in their quests to bring home a bit of loot or rescue a nation’s unique heritage from ruin (their thoughts, not mine). But then again, so many poor people have despoiled – and sold on – their own country’s artefacts and heritage to the collectors, it does make you wonder who is in the wrong. Or maybe the lack of reverence for such items had more to do with the fact that they considered old pots and cracked helmets a bit of a hindrance when they had mouths to feed and veggies to grow.

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