I recently visited the British museum for the first time. The very little I saw really was astonishing. I found it surprisingly moving, in fact – especially the Rosetta Stone, for whatever reason. But despite the sense of amazement, I also had the gnawing and depressing feeling that the last 3500 years of human history really just boils down to one damn war after another. Another (related) feeling was the more inchoate discomfort with how all that stuff managed to arrive in London.
In chapter 8 of Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah asks “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?” He points to an ambiguity in the term “culture.” Sometimes it refers to artifacts – “whatever people make and invest with significance through the exercise of their human creativity.” Other times it refers to “the group from whose conventions the object derives its significance.” He struggles with the relationship between these two senses of the term – specifically with the question of the return of ancient cultural artifacts to people who claim them as their “cultural patrimony”.
Appiah has lots of sensible and interesting things to say on the issue. He holds that it is “a perfectly reasonable property rule that where something is dug up and nobody can establish an existing claim on it, the government gets to decide what to do with it.” But the government should think of itself as a trustee “for humanity”. This cosmopolitan perspective breaks any kind of special tie to geographic location. “However self-serving it may seem, the British Museum’s claim to be a repository of the heritage not of Britain but of the world seems to me exactly right.”
But he also quotes Major Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts), who after looting the palace of the Asante King Kofi Karikari in
1874 1895 [thanks, rea – see comment 14.] wrote: “There could be no more interesting, no more tempting work than this. To poke about in a barbarian king’s palace, whose wealth has been reported very great, was enough to make it so. Perhaps one of the most striking features about it was that the work of collecting the treasures was entrusted to a company of British soldiers, and that it was done most honestly and well, without a single case of looting.” Appiah obviously recognizes this as theft, and wants a negotiated restitution, but this is because “the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object ‘home.’ … I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man … Because perhaps the greatest of the many ironies of the sacking of Kumasi in 1874 is that it deprived my hometown of a collection that was, in fact, splendidly cosmopolitan.”
There certainly is something very attractive about the ideal of a grand cosmopolitan museum, whether in London or Kumasi. But I just couldn’t shake the thought that most of the artifacts were taken with an attitude that Britain – as opposed to the world – was entitled to them.