Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
– John Keats (‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’)
Allow me to sound heartless for a moment. (Or even more heartless than usual, however you want to think of it.) As everyone knows, unknown persons have plundered the Iraqi National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, and the armed forces of the ‘Coalition’ have been unable to stop them, despite knowledge of the dangers to and the importance of these artifacts.1 Anyone concerned about the history of civilization is het up about this looting, and rightly so; it is an abomination, they observe, and they rhapsodize on the missing items, harps and tablets and museum records burnt for heaven-only-knows what reason.
But I want to know something: why the outrage? Looting of this sort is nothing new. Go to your local museum, especially if it’s one of those really nice ones, like the Metropolitan or the Louvre or the British Museum. You know what you see?
Loot. Plunder. Spolia.
The people who painted those funerary masks or carved those statues or mummified those cats sure as all hell didn’t intend them to be shuffled into barbarian warehouses for the ‘education’ or ‘improvement’ of gibbering hordes. Every time you marvel at the geometric vases at the Met, or the Elgin marbles,2 or the Hammurabi stele, you are benefiting from the plunderers of the past. Don’t you forget it.3
And the destruction of artifacts? Nothing novel, nothing strange: bombed in wars or thieved through time, beauty’s immortality is brief, despite our hopes. We get upset about it, we worry about the loss or destruction of the masks of long dead kings, shattered Buddhas, temple relics, because it forces us to confront our own mortality, our histories?’ finitude: no matter what monument we build, no matter what artistic legacy we hope to leave behind, memory’s finite.4 Wanton destruction of the past—individual, communal, civic, national, international—is one of the things we’re best at; the history of human existence is the history of the rubbish heap, and sometimes we throw important things away.
It’s a shame—but it’s always been our shame, if only we had cared to acknowledge it.
- It is an odd image, though—a museum needing a tank to defend it. Shouldn’t a society’s respect for its heritage be all the guard it needs if, in fact, the museum is doing its job?
- The Elgin marbles being, of course, that portion of the Parthenon marbles filched in the early nineteenth century by a now notorious Scotsman.
- But at least they’re on public display, you cry, anyone can see them; that’s obviously better than they’re being squirreled away for the private enjoyment of the privileged, where they might be damaged by poor conditions and mishandled by the ignorant. (Curious how museum entry fees are rising, especially the suggested ‘donations’… and did you know you oughtn’t to use chisels to clean marble?) But at least scholars know where the artifacts are, which is more than can be said for looted material. (Ha! Doesn’t mean they use it, though.) Though it is, of course, all far more complicated than that…
- And how much do we really value those cuneiform tablets if we don’t spare the time, energy or funds to publish them?