Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How reunifying cultural objects can foster deeper diplomatic relations

The British Museum may want to take a closer look at the case of the famous 14th century Chinese hand scroll painting, Dwelling in the Fu-ch'un Mountains, (left) the two long-separated sections of which are about to be reunited for the first time in 360 years, thereby promising an improvement in the troubled relations between China and its neighbour Taiwan.

The scroll, by the Yuan master painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), was divided into two sections around 300 years ago after its owner's daughter saved it from the furnace to which it was to be consigned on the collector's death. One of the most famous paintings in Chinese art, the scroll became part of the Qing imperial collections in the 18th century and in 1931 was among 650,000 treasures moved to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. (For the importance of Huang's scroll in the development of Chinese art, see Craig Clunas, Art in China, [Oxford, 1997, pp150-152]).

As The Independent has just reported, for decades the scroll has been divided, some parts residing in the Palace Museum in Taipei, the remainder being held in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum on the Chinese mainland.

The scroll is clearly a piece of Chinese cultural heritage, but in their beneficence the Chinese have elected to send the section held in Zhejiang Province to Taipei, evidently recognizing the extent to which seemingly small cultural gestures can have broader diplomatic benefits.

There's an obvious parallel here with the Parthenon Marbles whose components are divided between the British Museum and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. They too are a 'scroll' of sorts, a temporal narrative that unfolds through the length of the frieze, a narrative crudely interrupted by Lord Elgin's vandalism, but which could easily be reunited.

Greece is currently suffering at the sharp end of the global economic meltdown. Were the British Museum to take a lesson from China and the Yuan scroll and reunify the Marbles in Athens, it could resonate way beyond the closeted world of museums. Reunifying the Parthenon Marbles would help rebuild Greek self-confidence and revivify its sense of national pride during troubled times.


Anonymous said...

I think rather difficult for British Museum to help Greece rebuild Greek self-confidence and revivify. The situation between China and Taiwan have same history and culture heritage background, only different after 1949 two places went to the contraries way. There is power and politic issues, but the exchanges in between has increases tremendously in the past three decades, and will only increase more, after all still is one nation culture. e.g. is some people from London go to Isles of Scilly and declare independent as UK. Event like this is encourage by the Central Government. This can understand simply is a history significance in this particular art painting, but also is metaphor the two places will together again as one China.

JHSibal said...

The official position of mainland China is that Taiwan is an errant province. Thus, sending the "lost" piece to Taiwan is simply reorganizing inventory from one province to another.

The position of the Elgin marbles is totally different. Arguably, Bruce saved the pieces from an unstable province of the Ottoman empire and from a building which a major explosion had already seriously damaged in 1687. Elgin couldn't be sure that there would not be another revolt of the residents (not yet consciously Greek), another fortification of the acropolis and another disastrous bomb. The presence in London of these wonders helped create the British involvement in the myth of Greece and ultimately, its creation in 1832.
Yes, it is a great pity that the Parthenon is not all together. but the condition of the reliefs on the Hephaisteon is a good indication of what they would look like today--if not reduced for lime by 1830 by a growing Athens. And dare one note that originally no sondages were done for the new museum and Athens is in an earthquake zone?
It is exceedingly easy for us today to idealize and romanticize lost nations and cultures and those occupying the same turf today and claiming ancestry. But the focus should be ON THE OBJECT, not some PC notion of racial rights. It would be a better concept if these objects were regarded part of the patrimony of all mankind and not a tourist gimmick to be flooded by ignorant Philistines every fifteen min as the buses pull up, parking over an unexcavated lot of houses or tombs, dripping oil and sewage into the ruins.. Moreover, what if Nefertiti had been sent back to Cairo in 2010? Or all the Mesopotamian galleries in Europe repatriated to Baghdad; or the gold treasure put out on display in Kabul? When does it stop? Should the obelisks stolen by Rome be returned? Who now would wave the flag to send Nefertiti back?

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment, JHSibal. We're all familiar with the tired old imperialist argument that Elgin "saved" the Marbles. It no longer holds water, particularly after the British Museum was found guilty of having scrubbed the London Marbles to death. Nor are we unfamiliar with the influence the Marbles in London exerted on 19th century attitudes towards Greece. None of that has any relevance to the current need to send them back. This is not "idealisation" or 'romanticisation'. Rather it is a deeply held conviction based on the Marbles' art historical and archaeological significance. Neither of these is served by their continuing presence in London where they are displayed with no understanding of their original disposition on the monument but function merely as a tourist gimmick. That exposes the British Museum's failure to "focus ON THE OBJECT", as you put it. Invoking something you call a "PC notion of racial rights" is an echo of the bigoted motives at work when the Marbles were originally torn from the Acropolis. As for your weary old rehearsal of "the Floodgates" argument, this too demonstrates a lamentable lack of awareness of how repatriation builds cooperative relationships and fosters cultural understanding. It does NOT denude collections. You're out of step with the times. Get with the programme.