Losing Artifacts

In recent years, the world has seen a rise in civil disorder. Many Middle Eastern countries have experienced nation-shaking protests, and Greece, perpetually in debt with a shrinking economy, has seen violent demonstrations of its own. In total, thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, have been killed, but there have also been a few losses that have been underreported. In Egypt, thousands of 200-year-old documents were destroyed in a fire caused by protestors or security forces (each side blamed it on the other) at the end of 2011, and in Greece, the National Art Gallery in Athens, as well as the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, were burgled.

Stopping these and similar losses must be a priority of the governments that are entrusted with the care of such items, not only because they are important to their country’s citizens, but because, in some cases, people as far away as Washington University are intimately connected to them.

The importance of historical treasures cannot be overstated. The Institute of Egypt was established by Napoleon Bonaparte during his late 18th century invasion of that country, and housed nearly 200,000 documents—most of which were irreplaceable—of that era that were essential to understanding the period. At the National Art Gallery in Athens, three works of art, among them a Picasso, were stolen, and at the Archeological Museum of Olympia, 65 items more than 2,000 years old were taken. The value of the Picasso is obvious, but the ancient artifacts were of a type difficult to come by and important to understanding the social life of classical and archaic Greece.

In both countries, a blow was dealt to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. The Egyptian documents represented a European view of 18th and 19th century Egypt, a period that is not well attested in Ottoman or other sources. In the case of Greece, and especially the Archeological Museum of Olympia, the loss of the artifacts can be felt by the entire Western world. Europe and many of its former colonies are products of the thought and culture of ancient Greece, a society that is now thousands of years extinct, and the loss or destruction of any item that offers a clue as to how that society operated is devastating. It is as if a part of what makes us Westerners has been spirited away, and that loss is unpalatable.

Governments must take steps to increase security around such museums and institutions. This does not mean that everything more than a century old must be removed and secure in underground locations, or that the buildings in which such items are held need to be surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire. Indeed, such measures would run counter to the point of many artifacts: to be seen by and to serve as a physical reminder to the people. But in the case of The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, the entire exhibition of priceless artifacts was under the watchful gaze of one middle-aged female guard, who was tied up by the thieves. The Egyptian and Greek governments did and do have more pressing concerns, but the idea that enough resources could not be scrounged up or taken from elsewhere to properly secure their cultural legacies is absurd.

In the words of one volunteer who was aiding in the recovery of burned Egyptian documents, “When the government wants to protect something, they do. Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.” Central government buildings are well-secured, and rightly so. But the cultural significance of what is housed in national museums cannot be denied. They provide important information, and they give the people a link to their past; one can look upon a 2,000-year-old artifact at Olympia and understand, in some sense, one’s origins. Their security is of the utmost importance. That it is not ensured is a crime.

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