Friday, June 6, 2008
BM Rules… not OK
A museum friend has just sent me the transcript of an overheard conversation between a senior apparatchik at the British Museum (BM) and the representative of a source community (SC) discussing a claim by the source community to have some human remains returned which the BM holds and has never displayed or even examined for decades.
The remains have deep cultural significance to the source community. They were taken against the wishes and in violation of the beliefs of the source community during the days of Empire. This was a time when western collectors prized such trophy specimens for their own collections and to sell to the great public museums in London, Paris and Berlin.
The setting is a reception room near the Director’s office. Tea has been served in rather ornate cups.
BM: So, let me get this straight. You say that I’ve got stuff that belongs to you and you want it back?
SC: Yes, that is a pretty good summary. Except that we don’t call it stuff: what you have are our ancestors. These are people, who should come home.
BM: Really? How interesting. Bit of a ticklish one, that, for the BM, y’know. Returning things just isn’t our bag. Particularly if they’ve been stolen.
SC: Why not?
BM: Because this place is full to bursting with loot. It’s what makes us special. And important. Yes, globally special and important. If we started giving nicked stuff back, where would it all end, eh?
SC: But that doesn’t sound very fair or particularly moral.
BM: And your point is? Look, I don’t wish to appear unhelpful. Let us concede, just for the sake of argument, mind, that we do have something that is yours which we shouldn’t really have. And that the Law allows us to give it back. We can’t hand it over to you just like that, you know. No, no, no. That wouldn’t do at all.
SC: Oh. Why?
BM: Because we have Rules, dear fellow, Rules. And our Rules say that if we and my friends enjoy having your stuff here it’s not in the public interest to return it to its rightful owner. And what’s more, even if we’ve never used it but we think it might come in handy one day, same thing applies.
SC: That doesn’t sound very fair. Who wrote these Rules?
BM: We did.
SC: Ah. But are there no conditions under which you might give back what doesn’t belong to you?
BM: Funny you should mention that. Well, actually there are certain conditions under which we might, just might, give sympathetic and careful consideration to giving stuff back. No promises, mind.
SC: That sounds a bit more hopeful.
BM: Oh, I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you. Our Rules say that we only give things back if it fits our criteria for giving things back.
SC: Well, I’m sure there should be no problem there. We can prove it was ours and that it was stolen from us.
BM: Ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one. Very good. No that’s not the point at all, my dear fellow.
SC: Oh. So what is the point?
BM: Good question. The point is to make it as difficult as we can for you to get your stuff back, so we can keep it.
SC: I’m getting confused.
BM: Are you? Good. That’s also the point. But don’t lose heart, old thing. If you can meet our criteria, then we can give sympathetic and…
SC: “…careful consideration to giving it back” – yes, I heard that the first time.
BM: Excellent. You’re catching on. Anything else?
SC: The criteria for returning what doesn’t belong to you. I’d like to know what they are.
BM: Oh they’re really very straightforward. There are only two: 1. does your stuff glow in the dark? And 2. was the burglar wearing brown suede shoes when it was stolen from you?
SC: But that is absurd. Those criteria are completely irrelevant to our case.
BM: They may be irrelevant to you, old boy, and I’m sure you have a lovely country, wherever it is. But d’ye see, they are absolutely crucial to us in Bloomsbury.
SC: I find that hard to understand. They seem absurd wherever they are applied.
BM: My dear fellow, please understand that nothing is absurd in Bloomsbury. Absolutely nothing. Long tradition, you see. Let me explain. If they glow in the dark, it helps us to find them, because they’re in store with so much other stuff, and we haven’t got all day, you know. And any burglar who wears brown suede shoes is clearly beyond the pale, not one of us, and we wouldn’t wish to be associated with anything from such an obvious bounder.
SC: But I don’t know if they glow in the dark, and it’s most unlikely that we can find out what kind of shoes the person who stole them was wearing at the time.
BM: Then you seem to have a bit of a problem, old boy. More tea?
Such is the topsy turvy world of BM Rules.