A British Museum touring exhibit, dubbed “Treasures of the World Cultures” is touching off a small controversy at its Beijing stop. Of all the world cultures on display — Egypt, Greece, Ancient Rome, Africa — one was notably missing: China. The exhibit featured 272 artifacts, none of Chinese origin. Ironically, the British Museum has the largest collection of Chinese artifacts outside of China and Taiwan, totaling 20,000 plus items.
Why then weren’t any of the items included? The answer has perhaps more to do with international diplomacy than culture. Foreign ownership of ancient Chinese relics touches a very delicate nerve in the collective Chinese psyche, because it points to a period in Chinese history that most to date still see as a source of national embarrassment and disgrace. Many of those artifacts were taken during Britain’s colonial romp at the turn of last century, during which China’s once arrogant and prosperous façade were thoroughly shattered at the hands of Western nations. In the eyes of many Chinese people, these artifacts are only painful reminders of a shameful past rather than an embodiment of a proud civilization. Not surprisingly, China has asked and continues to ask for the return of those artifacts, but the British Museum has so far denied all such requests. Of course, the British Museum didn’t partake in the looting a century ago. Most of its holdings are gifts from private donors. Nonetheless, many consider its claim of ownership somewhat tainted.
At the opening ceremony in Beijing, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum skirted the delicate issue:
“The intention of the British Museums is to bring the whole world into one building …(The British Museum is) not a museum of the whole world, but a museum for the whole world.”