Monday, 16 August 2010

Trophy Relics: Rosetta Stone

Number one on the "Shopping List", is the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum actually anything more than a trophy? Quite literally as it was indeed war-booty, taken from the French who themselves had removed it from Egypt (OK, they found it in construction work, and secured it instead of cementing it into the fort's foundations). So this object symbolises another step on the way to Britain consolidating its imperialist hold on far off exotic lands, the cosmopolitan interests of the citizens of the capital in the centre of the empire on which the sun never set. Is that why people get so up tight about surrendering it when it is suggested?

Question: In what way would the British Museum's presentation of the culture of Ancient Egypt actually "suffer" by not having the Rosetta stone in the gallery? Are the BM short of stones with hieroglyphs on them? Do they not have any other items that illustrate the story of the "development of egyptology" for example? Why actually does that very object have to be in the galleries?

The "Freeman Institute Black History Collection" has gathered materials about the story of the Stone and can put on a nice display without having the object itself, so why in fact does the British museum not have this ability? Maybe it needs to buy more stuff, like a copy of the first published illustration of the hieroglyphics actually in a penny magazine (showing popular interest). Have any of the original paper squeezes or rubbings made before Champollion survived?

This is the Rosetta Stone as I remember it displayed once (note the inscription: "presented by King George III" now scrubbed off). You could actually touch it [and I remember as an eleven year old boy visiting the Museum with great aunt Ethel doing so - ooops]. You cannot even get near it now.

So why can't the BM give the original back now and replace it by an epoxy cast with the same tactile qualities (silica gel dust in the resin) as the original and allow people to touch it? With a little box of pieces of paper next to it and soft crayons for making rubbings of the cartouches, and then getting kids to wander the galleries with their rubbings looking for other examples of the same piece of inscription?
On the wall a touch screen version of the stone where touching the words retrieves that word read out loud by the computer and flicking a switch moves from one language to another? It seems to me that this text could also serve as the basis of a really spectacular multi-media presentation to 'bring it to life'. These can be produced in a saleable DVD form which visitors on a whistle-stop tour of the Museum (and who is not?) can buy at the sales desk to play with at home, or give as presents. All of this can be done today here and now without having the Stone in the London gallery. So why is it still there?

Would people stop visiting the BM if the 'Real Genuwine' Rosetta stone was not there? Would they stop coming to London? I think not. What purpose does hanging on to it actually serve?

This "How the Rosetta Stone works" page is fun. I could not resist the image of people looking at the stone.

Photo at top of page: Delegates of the Congress of orientalists study the stone (Illustrated London News 1874) Below: or was the stone in this frame when I first saw it? note the pedestal has changed, but then it seems to have been dchanged back again.

(Getty images)

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