Should the British Museum Return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt?
Well, this is a very polemic opinion as Egyptians want it back, and Zahi Hawass has managed to get many of ancient Egyptian artefacts back in Egypt. Should this piece have the same fate? I don't think so...
Because of the same reason many ancient Egyptian artefacts are displayed today in European and American museums and, although Zahi's influence is a growing factor in the antiques' dealers world, important pieces which bring thousands of people and money to museums worldwide will certainly not be returned to Egypt.
It is business.
the Rosetta Stone, the Nefertiti bust, The Seated scribe or the Sekhmet statues) are the postcard of these museums where they are displayed. Egyptian culture is a calling subject for public in general, mummies are the most wanted artefact, and the next best thing are these iconic depictions of ancient Egyptian society.
One wonders where these objects would be now if they hadn't been brought out of Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries... And in what state of preservation... Even when Egypt has managed to have all its collections on display in environmentally controlled rooms, should these be returned?
We could have a point there but would the institutions housing them now want to get rid of them so easily, just because they are Egyptian in nature, should they be in Egypt, the end? No.
I do not subscribe to the idea that buying ancient Egyptian artefacts from markets and underground dealers is good, but that is what happened in the past and should be corrected now. Contemporary illegal sale of these objects is punishable by law and I believe this is good and correct. But what happened in the past had different laws, costumes, cultural settings and reasons. Countries had other countries for colonies!!
To be accurate, that still exists today (the 'Netherlands' Antilles, the Bahamas, the 'French' Polinesian islands...).
Loaning is an alternative. Loaning objects for international exhibitions (although the insurance is sky-high) is an idea museums should discuss with Egyptian officals, themed exhibitions, travelling exhibitions, special occasions' exhibitions...
The British Museum is a great institution and it comprises more than simply exhibiting artefacts; we have conferences, courses, an exquisite library, lunch talks by curators, excellent replicas for sale, a whole world of business both in commercial and intellectual aspects.
I don't think the Rosetta Stone is feeling homesick as it has been well taken care of. Or that any other ancient Egyptian artefact has any reason to complain of the treatment given to them where they are housed in the present.
From my personal opinion, mummies,, which are human beings and thus more important than simple objects, including jewellry which most people find the most fascinating items, are being given more importance than ever all over the world and the Egyptian authorities care less about them, they have storage houses filled with body parts and whole bodies, still not studied, and there are some scientists and egyptologists eager to study them out there...
Zahi does not want mummies back, but he says that mummies in Egypt have to be studied by Egyptians, rather than by foreigners. But until 2007 Egypt did not have any laboratories or any kind of suitable facilities for technical analysis of human remains. The laboratories now existing in Cairo, at the basement of the Egyptian Museum and at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University were donated by 'foreigners' and the people who are highly qualified to conduct dna tests and who were training the Egyptian teams are also 'foreigners'.
And what about the thousands of objects stashed in Cairo's Egyptian Museum basement? Filled with dust, still in their original boxes (some from the 19th century), scorpions passing by, most of these objects never seen by anyone outside the museum, except for some very interested Egyptologist who went there to study some of them?
I think it would be a good idea for Zahi and his teams to start by cleaning and displaying the immense legacy they have stored, and maybe then think about claiming already famous artefacts, displayed in other countries' museums.
I believe in interdisciplinary work and in international cooperation, and because of that, it is my firm opinion that neither the Rosetta Stone or any other ancient Egyptian artefacts attracting too much attention in the world should be returned to Egypt just because it is Egyptian by birth...