Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

It's time to give stuff back!

It's time to give stuff back!

The Grand Egyptian Museum (check out this amazing drone vision) is a site to behold! And with her emergence from the sands comes a renewed demand for Egypt’s artefacts to be returned. So, where does the BM et al stand? And how can you use this issue in class?

In recent days, there has been renewed pressure from the Egyptian Government to return the Rosetta Stone - the artefact that unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphics. Originally stolen by British forces after defeating Napoleon in Egypt over 200 years ago, the Rosetta Stone has been one of the most popular artefacts at the British Museum. But it is also important to Egyptians, as hieroglyphics was a written ancient language unique to Egypt. For many decades this request has gone unheeded. The BM, and many other institutions, have been able to respond that Egypt’s museums were not secure locations, that Egypt itself was not a safe country. In addition, the BM has created itself as the global centre of grand objects and the free entry (except for exhibitions) means easy access for all the world’s people. But access would be a lot easier if the artefacts were in the country of origin.

The return of cultural heritage continues to be an issue that divides opinion. The Rosetta Stone is not the only contested artefact. Others include;

  • the Parthenon Marbles - The British Museum

  • Nefertiti’s bust - Neues Museum Berlin

  • Aboriginal bark paintings and human remains - British Museum

But there have also been returns:

  • The Met Museum returned statues to Cambodia

  • Kuwait returned coffin objects to Egypt

  • Guatemala was successful in its reparation claims against of number of European countries

  • UNESCO has made a list here

So, where to from here? Well, I suspect that the opening of the lastest (and so far grandest museum?) in 2 years time, may mean the mass return of stolen/looted/borrowed and acquired artefacts.

From a teaching point of view, this is a fantastic ethical debate for students to sink their teeth into. It asks them to consider not just issues of commercial activity, but the importance of cultural heritage, ownership, identity and theft. Where things get interesting is when they are asked:

  • how far should a country go to get their artifacts back? Is it worth fighting for?

If you’re interested in pursuing this as a class activity, this might be a good website to gather the yes-no case.

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Tutankhamun is coming to Sydney!

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