Ancient Collections: Modern Threat

On a recent trip to the British Museum, I was introduced to their new security procedures. It had been a little over a year since I was last there. Instead of walking through the main courtyard then up the steps to the iconic pillars, I was guided through a roped off area and into a small shelter where my bags were put through a security check. Only then was I free to enter the museum.

I think we’re all fairly used to seeing security points in airports and sports arenas. Even Disney check your bags before letting you in. It really is surprising that it has taken this long for museums to follow suit. Especially here at one of the most iconic landmarks in London.

Visitor Numbers

The British Museum is the most visited museum in the UK. Last year, it saw 6.6 million people walk through its doors. Just to put that into perspective, that is the entire population of Ireland (Republic and Northern). It is more than the entire population of the state of Tennessee. The visitor numbers alone make it a prime target for would-be attackers. However, visitors aren’t the only thing that make The British Museum vulnerable.

Politically Sensitive

Its collection is world class and of relevance to the history of the entire human race, not just to the British. Inside you’ll find statues, mummies, helmets, coins and much more. There are more than 1 million items in its collection. With such a huge number of pieces, it is almost inevitable that a few items would have questionable origins. That is to say, the way in which the museum acquired some of these pieces has been labelled as morally or even lawfully wrong.

Amongst the most controversial of these artefacts are The Rosetta Stone, an ancient tablet which was key to deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs, The Elgin Marbles, stone masonry removed from the Parthenon in Athens and The Benin Bronzes, bronze plaques looted from the great Nigerian capital of Benin as the British troops burnt it to the ground.

For years the Egyptian, Greek and Nigerian governments have been calling for the return of their ‘stolen’ artefacts. The British Museum maintain that the pieces in their collection have been rightfully received and that by being displayed in the London, they are freely accessible to large numbers of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see them. They also argue that the care that they take over the pieces is of a higher standard than what they would receive in their home countries. Especially those pieces from economic or politically unstable countries.

A New Threat

Finally, and most troubling, some of the collection in the British Museum is downright dangerous. Not in an obvious sort of way, although there are almost certainly objects with explosive, corrosive or poisonous properties lingering in the back somewhere. No, some of the museum’s collections are ideologically dangerous.

In 2014/15, Islamic state began looting museums and mosques, destroying ancient landmarks in Northern Iraq and Syria. Amongst these were the Mesopotamian cities of Khorsabad, Nimrud, Hatra and Palmyra. One of their reasons for destroying these sites was to eliminate any mention of polytheism from their past.

The British Museum houses one of the largest Mesopotamian collections in the world. The very thing I.S. would like to eradicate. In fact, they have admitted to holding pieces looted by I.S. from Syria. Their aim is to hold it in safe keeping until they can return it to Syria, something they did in Afghanistan.

A potential attack for ideological reasons isn’t far fetched at all. After an attack on a museum in Tunisia in March 2015 killed 23 people, museums in New York stepped up their security measures. London followed suit after the Paris attacks the following November.

Museums today do not shy away from controversy. They are regularly reminded that their collections, even the most ancient pieces, have very modern implications. They are popular tourist destinations housing pieces that are politically sensitive and even potential targets.

For more information about The British Museum, visit their comprehensive website at: http://www.britishmuseum.org

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