From the Elgin Marbles to An Gal Gréine via William Wallace

This week there have been renewed demands for the “repatriation” to Scotland of the 14th Century “William Wallace Passport”, presently held in the National Archives in Kew. As The Scotsman points out:

The case is set to inflame cross-border tensions in a manner befitting Wallace himself. 

The Passport, however, is only one of the eight  artefacts which the Celtic League are demanding be returned “to the Celtic countries from where they have been originally taken”:

Scotland: Lewis Chessmen; William Wallace Passport; Book of Deer

Brittany: The bones of Pol Aorelian

Wales: Gold Cape of Mold

Ireland: An Gal Gréine, (Sunburst) banner of Na Fianna Éireann

Cornwall: Beunans Meriasek; Prophecy of Ambrosius Merlin concerning the Seven Kings

Isle of Man: The Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles

 For history and culture buffs, the site descriptions and pictures on the site in themselves are well worth checking out; I found the stories and myths behind Prophecy of Ambrosius Merlin and the Gold Cape of Mold particularly evocative.

The chances of success for the campaign?

Following the rather unfortunately titled Munich Declaration in 2002, small. This agreement between the world’s leading museums (including the British Museum which holds several of these items) asserted:

… that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.

So, no, Greece ain’t getting the Elgins back any time soon…

However, one side effect of the agreement has been a much higher level of cooperation between museums, resulting in thousands of artefacts now being lent each year between museums on every continent. 

Rather than pushing for the full ownership of the items and thus denying the wider audience the opportunity to see them, perhaps this would be the better route for the Celtic League to follow? Put pressure on museums in the relevant countries and regions to set up exhibitions incorporating the artifacts, which could then be requested on loan from their present resting places?

I don’t know what kind of interest there would be in Dublin for the display of An Gal Gréine as an individual item. Put in its historical context, as part of a larger temporary exhibition, I’d certainly pay to see it. I’d pay even more  if it ever were to arrive at the Ulster Museum- a possible revenue-raising idea there for Nelson and his DCAL team to work on…

  • Turgon

    The Book of Kellsis fairly unlikely to have been created in the RoI. Even the TCD website on the subject admits that. As such maybe the Celtic League should campaign for the book to be sent to Scotland or indeed to somewhere in the ancient kingdom of Dalriada: Armoy was apparently an ecclesiastical centre as were Newtownards and Bangor.

  • Turgon,

    Yes, surprisingly enough, that appears to be the one they’ve missed!

    The whole campaign does raise the question about “ownership” of culture, the CL are arguing that as the base for their claims.

    But by pressing that ownership in some cases then they would be denying an infinitely greater number of people from seeing and learning about the artifact- which is surely the whole point of displaying them in the first place?

  • Drumlins Rock

    the British Museum in many ways is probably the best World Museum, covering more cultures, eras and civilisations than any other museum I have visited, and that is before you take into account on the average day it probably see more nationalities visit that the UN does.
    The most ridiculous I have heard recently is some mad MSP wants Mary Queen of Scots body removed from Westminster Abbey and taken to Scotland, if you saw the Tombs in Westminster you would realise the real reason for such a move.

  • Rory Carr

    Given that it is also most unlikely that the Book of Kells was created some time after 1949, Turgon, you are probably right that it wasn’t created in the RoI. You sure are a dazzler for historical accuracy.

  • joeCanuck

    I would like all museums to have free entry but I’m not averse to paying a few quid for a special exhibition. I agree that the British Museum is outstanding but I* imagine that the SMITHSONIAN IN ITS ENTIRETY WOULD GIVE IT A RUN FOR ITS MONEY..(SORRY ABOUT THE CAPITALS.

  • Dewi

    Enjoyed that O’Neill – thanks. Aber not only have purloined the Cornish treasure but also have ” the Hengwrt manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, believed by some to be the earliest extant text of this literary masterpiece”…..Why?

  • Glad you liked it Dewi.

    Re the Prophecy, it apparently contains Welsh translations by Gerard of Wales as well as Cornish ones. I am assuming then there was some Welsh connection somewhere down the line?

    Having dug a little bit further it turns out that The Vatican Library also contains a original- a fact omitted by the CL but I guess their chances of reclaiming it from there amount to something close to zero.

  • John Ó Néill

    One-fits-all solutions don’t really apply here.
    Manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, are iterative – they weren’t executed in a single episode. As far as I can remember, since the heavily illuminated portions incorporate folios with grammatical devices like word spacing etc it is more likely to be ninth century in date (i.e. after the departure from Iona). Similarly, devices in the panels are paralleled in the likes of stone high crosses (again probably ninth century or later). Ironically, the exotic materials used in the illumination were probably sourced along trade re-route that were re-opened by the Norse in the ninth century. So the date of the illuminated portions certainly isn’t clear (and Iona pre-806 arguments don’t actually hold a lot of weight in that regard).
    Since such manuscripts evolved over considerable periods of time, defining ‘where’ they came from can be very problematic. There is even a quirk that a manuscript in a monastic centre that was subordinate to somewhere else may be described as the Book of X since it was illuminated somewhere that was (effectively) owned by X. The Book of Kells was probably begun, studied and embellished in a number of locations like many others.
    As to the other objects – the Mold Cape may have been found in Wales, but is probably made of Irish gold (likely to be from the Mournes given the early Bronze Age date). There is an antiquarian account of a find that sounds remarkably similar from Cork (as far as I can remember, it could equally have been in Tipperary).The object hasn’t survived, though.
    While re-locating antiquities always sounds great, some actually do have significant environmental and conservation requirements to maintain them – which can be fairly expensive. Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for.

  • LuisPastor
  • After the Greeks demanded the Elgin Marbles, more people wanted to see the exhibit. The controversy is free advertising for the Museum.

    Let the Celts shout and give them a microphone while they are at it.