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.