Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fight at the Museum

Tonight, on When Cultural Exchanges Go Bad: the British Museum's decision to hold on to a Babylonian artifact has prompted criticism from Tehran, where Iran's National Museum had expected to receive it. At the heart of the dispute is the Cyrus Cylinder, believed to be the oldest known bill of rights, and allegations that the British Museum has reneged on a promised loan.

Evidently somebody forgot to call "no backsies."

Situations like this rarely bubble over into full-blown meltdowns, but they have a tendency to reveal underlying differences in cultural and political outlooks. Read about it here, here or here, or watch this report.

The dispute is likely to go to the UN for a ruling. Will UNESCO remind Iran that nobody likes a tattletale, or will the UK be urged to just play nice? More importantly, was this entire situation not avoidable? Cultural exchanges -- of personnel, equipment and artifacts -- have a lot of benefits. Why let a communication hiccup derail the entire operation?


  1. Funny that you put it in terms of "cultural exchanges," since I had a COMPLETELY different take on it...

    When I saw the story my reaction was:
    - Iran: is trying to prove that they had an emperor, in the 6th century BC, who came up with the world's first ever "human rights" charter. This - in light of the recent events there - would certainly boost Iran's self-pride and nationalism. ALSO, it's an opportunity to show off internationally and to claim more influence in the international arena, demanding its own artifact back. Basically - good propaganda tool, both at home and abroad.
    - UK: not losing any opportunity to vilify Iran, not willing to give in to the whole irony of the situation, AND not willing to get over its imperial possessions, even if most of the physical reminders are locked up in the British Museum.

    This is both, funny and sad. Yes, the Iranian government is FAR from deserving such self-acclaim at the moment, but what many people forget - apparently - is that Cyrus was PERSIAN, and that IT IS indeed Iran's cultural heritage. This is VERY MUCH like the story the Brits in the summer over the Greek Parthenon sculptures. It's just that in this case, Iran is just asking for a LOAN, not demanding a RETURN.

    And well, if I had to deal with the situation, I would certainly allow the loan to go ahead, but the Cylinder would be accompanied by a massive info campaign, revealing the hypocrisy of the government and showing the contrasts between where Iran's predecessor was in 539 BC and where Iran stands in 2010 AD.

  2. Lena, how could I possibly disagree with your articulate response? Except that I don't see how any of it negates the term "cultural exchange." At the heart of the matter, it's a loan of a cultural artifact from one country to another.

    Clearly the delay of the loan has led both countries to give voice to their resentment and disagreements, but the entire thing seems childish to me.

    It's definitely worth noting that it's not the first time the British Museum's been caught up in a controversy of this kind, and I probably should have mentioned the Elgin Marbles in the original post, but I suppose the point I was trying to make is that this could have been a productive interaction between two countries operating under significantly different leadership, and instead it's provided an opportunity to perpetuate animosity.

  3. Good point!

    Why not "cultural exchange"? Because it's not an exchange to begin with. I'll be diabolical and say that it's a perfect illustration of (at least attempted) cultural hegemony, since the Brits have appropriated the cultural heritage of Iran and now they're not even letting them LEASE their own artifact.

    I'm not saying that Iran would be able to take good care of it in terms of preservation, and in terms of cultural and/or history education; I'm sure it serves a much better purpose in the British Museum. I just wanted to show the perception of the Iranians and other formerly "colonized" (officially, and UNofficially) people. When you see someone else having taken what you consider your OWN, and not even letting you have it for an exhibit, an "exchange" would not be the best word to describe it, would it? ESPECIALLY when it concerns the Brits, who have messed SO MUCH UP in Iran, historically. (note: being diabolical! :P)

    Yet, I totally agree with you. They could have made something MUCH BETTER out of this whole thing, in terms of improving relations. At least on such a cultural level...

  4. Touché. I suppose I was operating under the assumption that reciprocity was likely, albeit not immediate or explicit, as museums and research institutions tend to be characterized by collegiality. But you know what they say about assumptions....

  5. :)) i would say collegiality is waaaay overshadowed by "patriotism". especially in this case.
    and that's sad. i agree.

  6. Well, someday in the distant future, when we've both got island nations of our own, the scholars will no doubt reflect with amazement and delight on the peaceful interactions between the national museums of McGinnia and Osipovania. :)

  7. hahaha :) i hope the peaceful interactions will not be limited to the national museums! :P