Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?

Four historians consider one of the most contentious questions facing the West’s museums and galleries.

A portrait depicting the Elgin Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819

Artefacts do not need to be ‘returned’

Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – and Why They Should Stay There (Oxford, 2016)

When, 3,000 years ago, sculptors in the Assyrian Empire chiselled into being winged, human-headed bulls for King Ashurnasirpal II, they could not have dreamt that their creations would end up centuries later in museums thousands of miles away. The five-legged, alabaster beasts were not made for brightly-lit galleries. Even if we wanted to, it would not be possible to return them to their place of origin. 

The ancient Assyria of 883 BC is very different from modern northern Iraq; fifth century BC Athens, which produced the much fought-over Parthenon Marbles, is unrecognisable compared to modern Greece. The court of Benin, which commissioned the Benin Bronzes, hardly resembles contemporary Nigeria.

On the Spot: Moudhy Al-Rashid

‘Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.’

Moudhy Al-Rashid.Why are you a historian of the ancient Near East?
To study the ancient past is to learn what connects us to the people that populate its texts and left behind its fragments, to learn what makes us human.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
Humans change very little over time. We love, worry and hope today in much the same way as we did 5,000 years ago.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia.

What book in your field should everyone read?
The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture edited by Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
It’s mythical, but the moment that Gilgamesh returned to Uruk after his journey.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Eleanor Robson, a trailblazer in our field, whose work and example remind me that the study of history extends far beyond texts and artefacts.

Bad Blood?

Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.
Stark warning: AIDS poster, UK, c.1980s.

They never saw it coming. In January 1985 the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS) carried out an HIV screening for 133 of its members. It was a precautionary measure, as a haemophiliac child had been admitted to the National Children’s Hospital with AIDS-like symptoms. Of the 133 members, 54 were found to be HIV positive. More tests were held and the infections reached 112 – a third of the society’s membership.

We know the old phrase that ‘History is written by the winners’. In some cases, this is true. But when it comes to HIV/AIDS, a story which offers no winners, the historical narrative has been shaped by the affected group that shouted loudest. In Ireland, this was the gay community, as activist organisations like Gay Health Action played a prominent role in educating the public about HIV/AIDS. This is, however, only a small fraction of a much messier narrative.

David Kilgannon | Published 14 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019

The Sons of Mars

The struggle for control of the straits dividing Sicily from southern Italy brought the two great empires of the Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome, head to head. It was a world in which ruthless mercenaries prospered.

Pyrrhus abandons his fight in Tarentum against the Romans to aid the Sicilian Greeks, 19th-century engraving. Mary Evans Picture Library.

Hiero II, the ruling general of the Greek city-state of Syracuse, led a campaign in 265 BC north towards a coastal Sicilian city, Messana, held by a group of Campanian mercenaries known as the Mamertines. The Campanians were part of a vast Oscan tribal group originally from the Apennine mountains, who had now settled in the southern Italian region of Campania.

Green and Pleasant Land

Jill Sinclair | Published 12 February 2019
No garden survives intact from the Elizabethan or early Stuart period. Changing fashions and the essentially ephemeral nature of plants and flowers have left us with only remnants and glimpses and some much later (and rather questionable) recreations. Reliable information on gardens from this period is slight and garden historians (a relatively new discipline) have tended to focus on the well-known and relatively well-documented estates of royalty and the aristocracy. Roy Strong’s The Renaissance Garden in England set the tone in the late 1970s with research that focused exclusively on lavish royal and aristocratic gardens, such as Henry VIII’s Hampton...Read more »
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The Sexuality of Slang

The Clown Cha-U-Kao, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895.

Following the Buggery Act of 1533, same-sex relationships were aggressively outlawed in the United Kingdom for over 400 years before decriminalisation in 1967. Just five years prior to that, in 1962 the Sunday Mirror had published a two page spread with the title ‘How to Spot a Possible Homo’. To persecute a person on the basis of their sexual preference had been the norm for centuries; it was the same in much of the world.

It has been argued that culture is created by the accumulation of communication pathways. Whether the highly localised codes and mannerisms that developed as a way of circumventing the political and social repression of sexuality in the 19th and early 20th centuries contained the seeds of today’s LGBTQ+ culture is debatable, but it does leave us with a fascinating cultural miscellany of slang, dress codes and even entire languages that were developed in order that members of the gay community could interact with one another safely.

Robert Greer | Published in
Robert Greer | Published 11 February 2019
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Postcards and the Russian Revolution

Pin-heads: postcard showing the Imperial government bowled over by the threat of revolution, Russian, 1905.In 1878, Russian mail workers intercepted four postcards sent from Moscow to St Petersburg. Each contained a series of short codes relaying chess moves, paired with an innocuous-sounding message. One, dated 29 October, reads: ‘Our club is growing, but the players are all bad – we haven’t yet had a single decent game.’

Across a covering note describing the postcards as suspect, an agent of the secret police has scrawled: ‘Chess!!!’ – the three exclamation marks pouring scorn on the notion that the messages might have anything to do with board games. This Imperial policeman was convinced that the king these players were manoeuvring against was in fact the tsar himself.

Chess-themed conspiracies were one of many problems to beset the authorities following the arrival of postcards in Russia. Even before they were introduced, postal officials worried they might give rise to ‘unpleasant confrontations between government servants and the public’. But little could have prepared them for the onslaught of messages that followed.

Tobie Mathew | Published 11 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019

He Xian Gu

The Taoist Immortal.

There are eight ‘immortals’ in the pantheon of Taoism, the Chinese religious philosophy that first appeared during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the last before the catastrophe of the Mongol invasion. According to Taoist mythology, the immortals inhabited a group of five islands in the north-eastern reaches of the Yellow Sea, near to Beijing, and now one of the busiest seaways in the world.

He Xian Gu is usually considered the only female immortal. Originally named He Qiong, she was born during the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the high points of Chinese culture. Her father, He Tai, was from Guangzhou, a port on the Pearl River. He Xian Gu was distinguished by six long hairs on the crown of her head. Around the age of 15, she was visited by a divine spirit who instructed her to eat powdered mica, a silicate mineral, which would cause her to take on an ethereal appearance, freed from the clutches of death. Having done so, she ascended into heaven to become a Xian, an immortal, enlightened practitioner of Taoism.

Unlike Confucianism, the other great religious philosophy of China, Taoism – which emphasises passivity and harmony with the Tao, or ‘Way’ – prescribes few rituals and has little to say about social order, emphasising instead fasting and vegetarianism. Its key text is the Tao Te Ching, the work of Laozi (‘Old Master’), probably a sixth-century BC contemporary of Confucius. It begins, elusively and allusively:

Imposter Syndrome

Social mobility and self-invention in the pre-digital age.

Brendan Bracken alongside Winston Churchill, April 1939.Thanks to the Internet, we will find it ever more difficult to escape our pasts. The reckless enthusiasms of youth, the misjudged moment, captured in full digital reality, never to be forgotten or explained away, may be borne long into maturity.

One loss is the ability to create the self anew, shaped according to one’s ambitions rather than one’s past. Take the founder of History Today, Brendan Bracken. The rebellious son of an Irish Republican, after a series of picaresque adventures in Australia he turned up at Sedbergh School, almost 20 but claiming to be a 15-year-old orphan. The head probably didn’t believe him, but took him on anyway. There was little oversight in those pre-digital days and so began a career that would see him become Churchill’s ‘faithful chela’ and, after 1945, the creator of the Financial Times, publisher of the Economist, as well as co-founder of History Today.

My Good Friend Roosevelt

Castro (right) with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos, 8 January 1959.Perhaps better than anyone else, Fidel Castro was keenly aware of the fact that the histories and destinies of Cuba and the United States were profoundly intertwined. A fascinating and virtually unknown document housed in the US National Archives and Records Administration demonstrates that Castro was aware of this from an early age.

‘My good friend Roosvelt’, opens a letter a young Castro sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written on 6 November 1940, the day after Roosevelt’s second landslide re-election. As a student at the Jesuit-run Colegio Dolores in Santiago, Castro heard the news on the radio and sat down to write a letter of congratulation, three pages long, in neat cursive but broken English on the school’s official stationary.

Castro told Roosevelt that he was 12 years old but, according to his ‘official’ birth date, 13 August 1926, he would have been 14. For decades, Castro’s birth date has been the subject of speculation and debate and it is possible that his father, Ángel Castro, bought a forged birth certificate with the object of presenting Fidel as a ten-year-old, the minimum age required for admission to the fifth grade at Colegio Dolores.

Luis Martínez-Fernández | Published 05 February 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019