Museums protect art history in world of destruction and indifference

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm


So now we know the truth. An entire civilisation can be eradicated and the world will look the other way. No one will care except a few bleating art lovers.

It is less than a fortnight since it became clear that Islamic State was destroying every trace of the ancient Assyrian empire in the parts of Iraq it controls. At first there was disbelief - exacerbated by irresponsible interpretations of a video in which some of the antiquities being smashed appeared to be fakes - then numb horror when the bulldozing of ancient Nimrud was confirmed.

And then the news cycle moved on - and we forgot. What is needed, to make sure the Assyrians are never forgotten, is some kind of institution that does the work of memory for us.

Well, many of its greatest masterpieces are actually thousands of miles from Isis and its barbarities. They fill a series of galleries in the British Museum. Human-headed winged bulls guard the entrance to the museum's incredible collection of reliefs from Nineveh and other Assyrian palaces. A whole set of visceral reliefs depict a lion hunt in which lion after lion is released from a cage only to be shot full of arrows by royal hunters in chariots. In other rooms, prisoners are flayed alive, cities are besieged and soldiers - in some of the loveliest scenes - swim across a river to attack the enemy.

In fact, looking at the violence of Assyrian art, I can't help thinking these ancient warriors would have beaten Isis in a fair fight - except it's not a fair fight: the ancients only live now in their art. Anyone can destroy a work of art. It takes no courage.

What does take courage and belief is defending it, and if as a civilisation we lack the guts or passion to protect humanity's heritage, at least we have museums that stand up for the glories of art and history in their own patient, careful way.

It is easy to list the British Museum's supposedly controversial possessions - and people will be doing that soon when it redisplays some of the Parthenon marbles in a huge Greek art exhibition. But in the light of what has happened in Iraq, we need to forget those debates.

In a world as chaotic and cruel as this, the British Museum and similar global collections around the world must be maintained and protected exactly as they are, Parthenon sculptures and all, as time capsules of the best of humanity.

Museums are the conscience of the world. When it comes to art and heritage, they are the only conscience we really have.

The Guardian