Wednesday, March 26, 2008

England Travelblogue: The Museum Debate

When you're in London, you absolutely need to take advantage of the city's great museums. There are a lot to choose from: The Tate Modern, The National Gallery, The British Museum. The list could go on and on. And because there is no required admission fee at these museums — though patrons are encouraged to donate as little as £2.00 — there really are no excuses for people to avoid visiting them.

For me, it was always a dream to visit The British Museum. Nerdy, I know, but what else can you expect after reading about my other adventures?

It's just that as someone who is fascinated by Egyptology, though I'm definitely not an expert, it's always been my desire to see objects like the Rosetta Stone in person. Knowing that the museum houses one of the best Ancient Egyptian collections in the world, and knowing that the museum's overall collection itself has quite a fabulous reputation, I felt it was important for me to stop by and take a good look.

I had a field day as I wandered through the Ancient Egyptian section. I scrutinized sarcophagi, gawked at giant scarab sculptures, and stood in front of the Rosetta Stone in disbelief, only to be pulled out of my stupor by the adorable chatter of little French schoolchildren that had also gathered around to look at it.

And I found myself drawn to other ancient structures as well, such as the gorgeous Nereid Monument, pictured below.

But I bet you can sense the trend here and someone I know actually made the observation herself before I made the visit. "The problem," she said, "is that the majority of the things in The British Museum aren't actually British."

I've never really considered this a problem in the past. But I will admit that I had my first moment of museum "guilt" back when I went to the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibition at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. As much as I loved everything I saw that day, I occasionally found myself wondering if we had much of a right to look over the contents that once belonged inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. I wondered if it was really proper for the exhibition to make its way through the United States and other parts of the world, away from its country of origin.

I didn't necessarily experience such feelings of guilt while visiting the British Museum, but I couldn't help thinking back to the comment my acquaintance had made. Was it a problem that the items in the museum had been acquired from other parts of the world? In a way, I felt it wasn't. But I realized that some might consider it problematic due to the history of the British Empire. It is unfortunately likely that some of the items there can be linked back to a history of oppression. So I guess the question is, should one country's history affect the way we view international collections at its museums?

While some people may still have mixed feelings about places like The British Museum, I think we've reached a point in time where some of these thoughts might be somewhat irrelevant. This does not mean that we should disregard historical events. However, considering the fact that countries around the world contain artifacts and works of art that originally came from elsewhere, it would be unfair to look at The British Museum as the only example of its kind. After all, other major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, also contain collections from around the world. You can't let a country's past affect the way we view it in the present, especially when no actual harm is being done.

And in many ways, it's important to remember that museums exist for the sole purpose of preserving the past. Sure, items get dug up and uprooted from their home countries. But in some cases, this is actually a good thing.

I can't recall specific examples off the top of my head at this point, but I do remember seeing some items at The British Museum that came from now war-torn regions of the Middle East. There is a sad possibility that if these artifacts hadn't been brought to the museum, they wouldn't be with us at all.

While history may get uprooted in our ever-changing world, I feel it's more important to keep pieces of it intact instead of losing it forever. So even though certain aspects of museums may rub a few people the wrong way, it's probably best to think about the ways in which they do benefit our lives and contribute to our knowledge of the human race.

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