Simon Jenkins cites "French art historian André Malraux" as an authority when he argues that "a museum … has always been an artificial concept, a rush of objects not in context but out of it" (Stolen objects do not belong to our museums, 24 from November). Malraux himself seems to have been complicated in his attitude towards "stolen objects" as well as in his political and intellectual life.
One episode that earned him fame was an attempt to steal and sell four sculptures from the Banteay Srei temple in Angkor, Cambodia. On a visit in 1923, he and a friend "separated them … with a plan to sell the stolen goods in the art markets in London or New York" (The Many Lives of André Malraux, Apollo, August 26, 2017). When he was, unsurprisingly, arrested and imprisoned, a clamor of French intellectuals secured the suspension of his sentence, and he emerged as an avid collector of Eastern antiquities and (to quote again the Apollo article) "a protector of the world's negligence. native populations ".
In all, Malraux seems a curious ally to Sir Simon to have co-opted in his campaign against museums – as "mausoleums," concerned only with "acquisition, property, and status" – given that this future minister of culture (under Charles de Gaulle's presidency ) seems not to have been averse to "pulling objects" out of context.
Prof. Nick Havely
• The case to return the statue of Easter Island should be considered by its merits, as well as others, like the marbles of the Parthenon. My first choice for return would be the beard of the Sphinx, which makes no sense in the British Museum, but would do much more on the chin of the Sphinx. But Simon Jenkins does not reinforce the case by linking it to the rise of nationalism (he does not use the word, hiding it behind expressions like "the imminent policy of national self-confidence").
The counter-argument for internationalism was best made by the great Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. By no means an Anglophile, he visited England shortly before World War II as a guest of the British Council. He spent much time in the British Museum, where he particularly admired the Assyrian, powerful but barbaric sculptures, and the exquisite, but epic, Persian miniatures. Moreover, of course, the marbles of Elgin, exemplifying the Greek ideal of nothing in excess. "If time had a home," he wrote, "and if he were a knowing prince, to love and remember his beautiful moments, the British Museum would surely be that house."
(British Ambassador to Greece, 1993-96), Oxford
• Simon Jenkins argues that President Emmanuel Macron is right to demand that historical objects drawn from Africa, Asia and South America be returned. In principle, this seems like honest restitution. And then what? Is he sure that these countries are demanding his return? Why did you come from a French non-African or Asian president?
On a visit to London a few years ago, I took the Catholic Archbishop of Sokoto, Nigeria, Matthew Kukah, to the African galleries of the British Museum. When we looked at the bronzes in Benin and the ivory masks, I asked if they should be returned to Nigeria. He said, "I think it would be better if they stayed here."
His argument was that if you sent them back to a museum in Nigeria, some people would demand that they be returned to the sanctuaries where they once were or would be stolen. In addition, he said, few people in Nigeria will be interested.
The last point has been confirmed in my visits to museums in Africa in the last 40 years. Outside Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, few tourists and school groups go to museums. These are dark places, built hastily by the imperial powers of the 1960s, as part of an independence package. Governments today hardly support them. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni wanted to topple the museum in Kampala. I have the feeling that many Africans of their generation are ashamed of their past.
The obvious solution is for objects to be replicated or rotated in every museum in the world.
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