Bringing them all back home Part 1

There was some publicity recently about ancient Egyptian artefacts in Scotland.  I read an article in The National on 15 May, credited to Craig Cairns, and the exact same article appeared next day in The Herald without a journalist’s name attached.  The STV news website also covered the story on 16 May.  National Museums Scotland have been reviewing our hoard of antiquities from Egypt and have come up with a figure of 25 different collections, consisting of about 14,000 objects.  Dan Potter, a curator who was involved in the project, is quoted as saying it was ” … a real privilege, being able to shed a proper light on these objects” and that “Each of these collections have fascinating histories in their own right.”

They certainly do, maybe more than he cares to admit.   What I was interested in and was hoping to read  was some kind of explanation as to how and why this large number of objects had been moved from Egypt to Scotland.  The newspaper articles had, in one paragraph, a reference to UK museums having subscribed to an Egypt Exploration Fund, set up in 1882.  The STV news site went into a little more detail on this: many museums had made contributions to the Egypt Exploration Fund in order to finance “professional excavations” in Egypt, with the finds then divvied up among the museums.

Nowhere did I detect even a smidgeon of doubt about whether this had been ethical behaviour; it was just presented as a straight ‘good news’ story.  However, it certainly got me thinking about why I was feeling so uneasy.

I moved on to the National Museums Scotland website where under the heading “Ancient Egypt across Scotland”, there are several very interesting short films about Scots collectors in Egypt and Egyptian collections in Scottish museums.  Early collecting work is described as being “careless” and they say it was several Scots who led the way to “more responsible excavation”.  One of the talking heads tells us that the Egyptian government had first choice of excavated artefacts “under colonial rule” and then a share was given to the excavators; presumably that would only be the case if everything found was declared.  From the 1860s, tourists were arriving and taking home souvenirs which were often then donated to museums.

Haud on, I thought – what “Egyptian government”?  Was it not 1922 before Egypt got a form of independence as a monarchy and even then it was still occupied by the British military?  This continued occupation was only ended by the 1952 revolution.  In the NMS films, we’re told that: “In the 20th century, increasing concern over protection of national cultural heritage led to laws and treaties which banned the export of antiquities.  Now, everything excavated in Egypt remains there.” And quite right too.  (As a child in the 1960s, I couldn’t understand why Nasser was regarded as a ‘bad man’; he was an early hero of mine.)

The final talking head  –  Dan Potter himself  –  explains that the NMS’s recent review was intended to “reconnect the objects” (?) and to “raise awareness of these incredible collections across Scotland”.  Now, while not really wanting to judge past activity by present-day standards, I certainly want to judge what’s happening now by them.  I fully accept that by looking at these collections here in Scotland either virtually or in person, we can get an appreciation of the cultures that created them; I also know that they’re not all going to be returned to Egypt.  However, I’d like to think that prominently in each display, there could be an open recognition of just what the “fascinating histories” of the objects actually are, including how they came to be where they are now and with visitors encouraged to think about all aspects of heritage objects.

Probably the best known example of cultural theft / preserving world treasures was carried out by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine who removed the Parthenon Marbles from Athens while it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  The British Museum seems determined not to return them and their reasons make my toes curl in shame and embarrassment.  They know fine well they’d be setting a precedent.

A less well-known example is the obelisk – or stele – from Aksum in Ethiopia which dates from about 430 CE: all 160 tons of it were looted in 1937 by Italy (having first cut it into 5 pieces to make it easier to handle) and set up in Rome.  In 1947, Italy agreed to return it but this did not happen until 2005, with the stele finally being unveiled back in Aksum in 2008.   A statue of the Lion of Judah taken at the same time was returned in 1967.  The stele had been hit by lightning while in Italy and damaged by pollution from heavy traffic but the arguments kept coming that it was safer in Italy, that it could be broken in a move and even that it had become part of Italy’s cultural heritage!  There was, of course, also the awareness that if Italy returned the stele, other countries would want their stuff back too.

Not so long ago, there was a stushie in Glasgow over a call from the Lakota Sioux for the return of a Ghost Dance shirt from Kelvingrove Museum.  In 1891, the shirt had been given – or sold – by George Crager (sometimes spelled as Craiger) who had been an interpreter for Lakota performers taking part in William (Buffalo Bill) Cody’s Wild West Show in Dennistoun.  He told the museum it had been taken from the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota and it was reputed to have both bullet holes and blood on it.  The belief of the Lakota was that such shirts would protect them from the bullets of the white soldiers and they were powerful objects with religious significance.  While dancing, the dancers were praying for the return of the buffalo and their traditional culture that depended on the animals.

ghost dance shirt
The Ghost Dance Shirt, made of cotton with raven, owl and eagle feathers

In 1992, a Cherokee lawyer was visiting Glasgow and went to an exhibition at Kelvingrove where he spotted the shirt.  After a 4-year campaign which was led by Marcella Le Beau, the great-granddaughter of a Wounded Knee survivor, Glasgow councillors voted to return the shirt.  The Council had decided to carry out a public consultation and of the 104 letters they received in response, only 8 were against giving the shirt back to the Lakota Sioux.  In August 1999, the shirt was returned in a ceremony at the site of the massacre.  Later a replica shirt, made by Marcella Le Beau  was donated to Glasgow to be put on display.

An opponent of return was Julian Spalding, formerly Head of Glasgow Museums.  Though he’d had it on display – and labelled – he was now doubting its provenance and claiming the decision to return it was “political”.  Well, I hope it was; it made me feel very proud of Glasgow at the time as I thought it was a positive experience for both ‘sides’ and a fine example of what could be done with good will and good sense prevailing.  It was the first time that a museum in Europe had agreed to return a Native American artefact to its home nation.

Mr Spalding wrote quite a bizarre article for the Art Newspaper website on 1 September 2000:  Julian Spalding on Glasgow’s return of the Sioux Ghost Dance shirt: Is restitution always right?   He was quite sour about what he saw as the Scottish tendency to identify with “the oppressed” and claimed that there were Scots among the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who had done the shooting at Wounded Knee.  Well, perhaps there were: Scots who had either left or had been forced out of Scotland did go on to take part in oppression elsewhere in the world.  However, what that had to do with the rights and wrongs of returning the shirt at the end of the 20th century, I don’t know; it sure didn’t make the shirt Scottish.

Another interesting read is on the Returning Heritage site: Ghost Dance Shirt returned by Glasgow to Lakota Sioux. (

One Glasgow museum official said at the time that returning the shirt would “open the floodgates” and I suspect this is the real reason why so many folk in the trade are against the return of any artefact, looted or otherwise, to its country of origin.  However, in 2000 Glasgow set up a Working Group on the Repatriation of Artefacts to consider future requests.  I must try to find out if this group are still active.



2 thoughts on “Bringing them all back home Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Book of Deer – is it coming home? – Splendid, Bella!

  2. Pingback: Cauld kail het up – Splendid, Bella!

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