Helen Martin: Treasures should be handed back

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DURING the “annus marvellous” that was 2012, Himself and I were among the thousands at Her Maj’s Jubilee Concert. We don’t always agree on things, which is why he sat on his nationalist hands while I got uncharacteristically carried away with the hysteria, waved my little Union flag and sang “Rule Britannia”.

It was the atmosphere, not to mention the fact that it seemed highly ill-mannered to be invited (albeit by ballot) to a free concert at the Palace, and then be a party-pooper.

That morning though, we had a few hours to spare and went to the British Museum. As we meandered through the Egyptian collections, then the priceless Roman artefacts and Greek treasures, we looked at each other and knew we were both thinking exactly the same thing. What is all this stuff doing here?

Why are we celebrating Imperial looters who raided other civilisations and brought their booty back to London for the glory of England or the UK (given that Scots were rather famous for exploring and returning with 
trophies)?

And even if it was all fair game then, shouldn’t we be giving these originally “stolen goods” back now? Shouldn’t the countries of origin be the ones to show them in situ in the 21st century?

The art world and governments have been arguing these principles for hundreds of years without resolution, except in rare cases.

Last week, up popped the astonishing discovery in the bowels of Edinburgh Central Library, of the rare Furuyama Moromasa Japanese scrolls depicting city life in 1700s Japan, possibly the largest example in the world.

The scrolls are different. For a start, they were gifted to the city back in the 1940s and then somehow, forgotten. And gifted by a relative of Henry Dyer who was not a looter but an engineer who had been invited by Japan to assist its industrial development and highly honoured by the Emperor for his work there.

It might be a nice gesture to gift it back . . . after all, I fancy if a scroll depicting Edinburgh life in 1700 was being kept in Japan, we might like to display it in Scotland as an important part of our history.

Dyer was born in Bellshill and studied and lived his life, when he wasn’t in Japan, in Glasgow, but there is no doubt that Edinburgh came by the scroll honestly and fairly. The question is, should we keep it?

The role of local authorities has changed since the gift of the scroll. Where once councils had money sloshing around with which to build grandiose chambers and commission imposing monuments and to act as rich guardians of international culture and treasures, they now primarily exist to empty the bins and keep the street lights on, to run schools and provide affordable housing, to fill potholes and preside over parking fines.

Museums are the specialised custodians of such treasures, indeed National Museums Scotland are working with the Central Library to look after the scroll and in what some of us might think an ironic move, are applying to the Sumitomo Foundation for funding to do just that so that it can be displayed in Scotland in future.

So there we have it. By a fluke, Edinburgh City Council owns the scroll but has to apply to a Japanese cultural foundation for funding to look after it, after which it will be displayed in a Scottish museum on the other side of the world from the people whose history it represents. It may even go on temporary loan to Tokyo one day.

For generations museums have offered eclectic, international, historical treasures to the public. Before global travel, television and the internet, they were our only window on world history. They educated us, made us gasp in awe and wonder and helped us understand the mysterious world beyond our shores. We could see Egyptian mummies in London, Samurai robes in Edinburgh, Ming vases in Rome, all thanks to explorers, thieves, bequests and auction to the highest bidders of which museums were the most benign, sharing them all with the public, often for free. And far better that, than private collectors or 
corrupt dictators greedily hoarding them away from public view.

But for me there will always be something sad about national historic and ancient treasures being displayed in alien nations instead of back home where they belong and are understood by the people who should naturally have inherited them.

Citizen pain

MOTORING organisations say it is “not appropriate” and a form of “vigilantism”, but “Edinburgh’s worst drivers” – a Twitter and Facebook campaign by an Edinburgh security officer which shows appalling examples of driving in the city – was inevitable.

Shopkeepers have had to contend with citizen traders undercutting them online. Who needs record companies when you can upload your own music? Citizen journalism is on the up. But now we’ve got citizen policing catching out bad drivers – including police officers.

Why do I think this might be one particular citizen step too far and that somehow, he will be stopped?