Finders keepers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

FROM ANCIENT EGYPTIAN mummy caskets to a Bronze Age shield forged in the British Isles, artefacts from the British Museum on display in Beijing promise a rare glimpse of the world's greatest cultures under one roof. But one great culture is notable by its absence: the Chinese.

The British Museum chose not to show any of its 20,000 Chinese treasures, including precious Buddhist paintings from the Dunhuang cave region of western China.

Jane Portal of the British Museum's Asia Department says 'there was no need to bring Chinese items' to the exhibition at the new Capital Museum because mainland museums have extensive collections of their own.

But when the collection went on show in Seoul last April, Korean and Chinese pieces were on display. After the show, the Chinese pieces were sent back to London for 'preservation reasons', says Portal.

Not everyone is convinced. 'While the British Museum's touring exhibit ... has left many people here in awe, the collection of 272 ancient artefacts has also raised a number of concerns and questions,' the Xinhua news agency reported. 'Why are there no Chinese artefacts and to which civilisation do the objects really belong? Most of them were robbed or purchased for pennies more than 100 years ago.'

Capital Museum curator Guo Xiaoling has admitted that there are 'political and legal questions about ownership'.

Some of the British Museum's collection was looted from China in the aftermath of the 19th-century opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion, Guo said. 'The British museum acquired many of its items before other countries had drafted laws to protect their cultural relics,' he told Britain's Guardian newspaper. 'If we exhibited these items it would imply that we recognised their ownership.'

Showing no Chinese treasure is one way of circumventing the thorny issue. After all, the whole exercise is about building diplomatic and cultural ties between the two 'Olympics cities': Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.

Last September, the British Museum signed a deal with the National Museum of China guaranteeing a series of loans, including an exhibition of Egyptian art and mummies in 2008, in exchange for a number of Chinese loans.

The Victoria & Albert Museum agreed to host a series of visual-arts shows during the next three years, starting with last October's Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China. It will also host two grand exhibitions: China Design Now in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics, and Shanghai Expo in 2010.

Treasures from the World's Cultures is billed as an opportunity to see some of the almost seven million-strong British Museum collection of antiquities inside the 1.23-billion-yuan Capital Museum. Guo says the lineup gives 'Chinese visitors an introduction to a world history that they had previously only read about in books'. It includes marble busts of gods and historical figures from imperial Rome and ancient Egypt, carved wooden heads from central Africa, and what's believed to be the oldest lyre ever found. Standing one metre tall, the lyre's wooden frame is fronted by a carved cow's head ornately decorated with lapis lazuli, gold and shell. It is 4,500 years old and was found in Ur, in present-day Iraq.

Also included are carvings from the Pacific Islands, Mughal Indian and Persian paintings and a two-million-year-old chopping tool found in Tanzania. The absence of anything Chinese is a reminder of a sometimes fractious relationship between the British Museum and mainland authorities.

He Shuzhong, who runs a cultural preservation campaign group, says the omission of Chinese works was deliberate. 'As many Chinese believe most of them were collected illegally, via robbery, the organisers of the exhibition know what many Chinese people think and want to avoid any trouble.'

Britain and Greece have been at odds for years about the status of the so-called Elgin Marbles, which were removed from the roof of the Parthenon in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin. The British government maintains that Greece was adequately compensated for the carved friezes at the time.

One concern could be that nationalistic websites might excite opinion if the Chinese exhibits were put on display. Such sites have proved influential in shaping public opinion and government policy. Last year, as part of an on-going dispute with Japan over competing versions of history, websites were used to organise mass demonstrations across the country.

The return of stolen artefacts by major museums and galleries isn't unprecedented. This year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return to Italy works looted from archaeological sites in the 1970s. In another case, the Peruvian government is planning to sue Yale University in the US for the return of 4,900 artefacts it says were lent to the institution for 18 months. That was in 1916, several years after the rediscovery of Machu Picchu by Yale graduate Hiram Bingham, who oversaw the transfer of Peruvian curios.

If anything, Treasures from the World's Cultures suggests that neither the British nor the Chinese are yet prepared to delve into the murky waters of ownership. In the meantime, visitors are urged by organisers to catch the exhibition before these British treasures return to the vaults.

Treasures from the World's Cultures, Capital Museum, Fuxingmenwai Avenue, Xicheng District, Beijing. Ends June 5