Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics?

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

When I first entered the British Museum, I was ready to be filled with a sense of righteous liberal indignation. On a visit to the Acropolis a few years earlier, the Greeks had been only too happy to tell me where all the missing statues were – the friezes, the caryatids, the pediments – all in London, some ‘British museum’, a world away. But once I entered, I found it impossible to hold a grudge against the museum itself. The circumstances under which it obtained and holds such a diverse and rich collection may be controversial, but everyone agrees the collection is a marvel.

Under one roof, a visitor sees Egyptian wall paintings, the Rosetta stone, viking helmets and chess pieces, turquoise serpents, crystal skulls, records written in cuniform, totem poles, knives carved out of antler and decorated with reindeer, Roman mosaics, Arabic calligraphy wrought in metal, and yes, even the Parthenon exhibit. The museum’s official stance about its… erm… forcibly borrowed goods is that “The Museum is a unique resource for the world” which “exists to tell the story of cultural  achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of  human history over two million years ago until the present day.” It’s easy to question the purity of their true motives, but there’s certainly some truth there. I, for one, found myself enchanted despite myself.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

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