- Britain and the Heritage of Empire, c. 1800–1940 ed. by Astrid Swenson and Peter Mandler
Britain and the Heritage of Empire, c. 1800–1940, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 187 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 304 pp.
Plunder for its own sake or for profit is one thing. Plunder for prestige is another. Twelve authors here investigate the mainly British record in uncovering, taking, and restoring antiquities in lands that came to form the British empire in its late nineteenth-century heyday. The resultant picture is not altogether bleak and is sometimes droll when the “rights” of others intrude—as when P. T. Barnum thought that America was entitled to carry off Shakespeare’s house as a part of America’s British heritage. The British record in India especially was good: much was taken home, but much more was carefully preserved on the spot, thanks to Lord Curzon, who saw to the restoration of the Taj Mahal and set it in a version of an English garden. Sometimes, as with the Benin bronzes, the rape proved to be a rescue. The building of Khartoum cathedral was an interesting exercise in imaginative re-creation of the past. The shifting story of the Aswan Dam has proved to be one of destruction as well as preservation. The Rosetta Stone is an example of plunder hijacked by one colonizer from another. Even the Crimean War proved to be an opportunity for excavation. Attitudes toward the “native” provoked mixed responses, eventually scholarly and benign—as in the cases of Australia and the Central American civilizations. Given that the profit motive has always been a major factor in all civilized societies, it is reassuring that far more good than harm has resulted from the British obsession with the past, both our own past and that of others, especially now that “heritage” is seen as a global and not just a national issue. That their heritage can sometimes still be ignored or destroyed is a sad reflection on some modern societies. [End Page 326]
Sir John Boardman is Lincoln Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology emeritus at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy, which awarded him the Kenyon Medal in 1995. Editor of the Oxford History of Classical Art, his other books include The Greeks in Asia; The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity; The Greeks Overseas; The Triumph of Dionysos; The History of Greek Vases; and The Relief Plaques of Eastern Eurasia and China: The “Ordos Bronzes,” Peter the Great’s Treasure, and Their Kin. He received the inaugural Onassis International Prize for Humanities in 2009.