I have been “hearing” (reading, really) just snippets here and there for some time now about a debate between Iran and the British Museum.. It’s a pretty big deal, but, as it’s hardly anywhere near my main field of interest, I let it slip.
Today, Mark Rose provides us a nice concise summary of the situation, on the blog at Archaeology.org.
Here’s what I distill out of it:
1) The Cyrus Cylinder, an object in the BM’s collection since 1879 when it was unearthed in an excavation operated on behalf of the Museum, is a major major historical document, recording the release of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity (and important for various other reasons as well, the direct mention of the King Cyrus, other aspects of the inscription, etc etc.).
2) In 2009, the Museum made arrangements with Iran to lend the cylinder to Iran to go on exhibit, in exchange for Iran lending a number of objects for an exhibition in London.
3) Iran lent those objects, and the exhibit in London went through. But, now, having discovered related inscriptions on other objects in its collection, the BM wants to delay the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder so they can study it more.
4) Iran throws a hissy-fit and temper tantrum, and cuts off all formal relations with the British Museum.
Well, on the one hand, it seems a pretty dick move for the British Museum to delay or deny the loan, if doing so seriously throws a wrench in plans to have the exhibition. That is to say, if the exhibition is already planned for this year, and various things are already underway; if the refusal to loan the Cyrus Cylinder means the exhibit either will go on without the cylinder, or won’t go on at all, then that is a really dick move. Guys, you can do your studies when you get the object back, after the exhibit. Assuming you trust the Iranians to give it back, that is.
On the other hand, it seems to me like Iran is overreacting, and blowing things out of proportion. It’s not as if the Museum has said they won’t lend the object at all. Yes, they’re delaying the loan, yes, that’s a dick move, and maybe that might constitute a breach of contract. But at a time when other countries are going crazy trying to get the British Museum and other institutions to return objects they claim were stolen, this kind of thing just really doesn’t seem such a big deal. The cylinder is fully rightfully in the Museum’s ownership, and as far as I can tell, Iran does not seem to be contesting that; the Museum has said they will loan the cylinder, just not right now… So, I don’t see what the big deal is. Maybe in Persian/Arab culture, this is how you handle things, by getting angry and offended at the drop of a hat, but in the West, we like to handle things in a
more civilized rational different manner.
UPDATE: The Cylinder has now returned to the British Museum from a very successful seven-month loan to the Iranian National Museum, where hundreds of thousands of visitors got to see it. The original agreement for a four-month loan was extended due to popularity. Isn’t it wonderful to see museums (and countries) playing nice with one another?