Wednesday 10 August 2011

London's Burning

A few weeks ago Zahi Hawass was saying if the police lost control of the streets in places like London and New York museums would end up getting looted there too. The Egyptian riots (called a revolution by some) started off with somebody dying as a result of police brutality. in London there has been a third night of looting and mayhem as a result of the shooting by police of a young coloured man Mark Duggan in northern London. For the third night the police have struggled to maintain order against the rising violence and civil disorder caused by groups of young people (like in the Egyptian case suspected to be using social media to communicate about where to regroup). The following two screenshots from the Guardian's interractive guide to the riots show that the British Museum (red in the second) is right in the centre of the mayhem. Let us hope we do not get to see what security measures it employs.

Central London, showing sites of incidents; the area shown is 34 km across, the BM is roughly in the centre of the picture
Incidents within about 2km of the British Museum
The British Museum is not the only cultural object out there potentially threatened, there are many smaller museums and art collections scattered across London. In Tottenham High Street a 1930s Art Deco building which was a local landmark (photo top left - BBC) was gutted by fire yesterday.

Just as a reminder how vulnerable artefacts are even in a place as secure (we hope) as the British Museum, this famous "Google Earth Easter Egg" (visible on the guardian site too) reminds us how potentially disastrous a terrorist attack on the BM could be:

The building with the roof like a balloon at the bottom is the BM and the plane is headed more or less right at the PAS offices.


Scrabcake said...

It's interesting to read about the artifacts that were lost in WWII in Europe, many of which were not at all published and are now only known through fairly sketchy curators' notes.
Both the British Museum and the Royal Scottish Museum lost a significant amount of Egyptian material. Of course, Dresden museums suffered heavy losses, too. The curators tried to save a lot of what they thought were the "more important" objects, but it's incredibly frustrating to run across an item in the literature described as destroyed in WWII. (Or found to be so damaged that the item was disposed of, which happened in the case of a few items from the Royal Scottish Museum)
As for European heritage, the amount of THAT lost during WWII is truly staggering. Former colonial museums and collectors really have no standing to criticize Egypt for objects lost due to political turmoil* and ought to concern themselves with documenting the stuff they have so that we will at least have a record of objects lost next time there is a political catastrophe out of the control of the museum that threatens the museum.
*This does not include objects "lost" in storerooms or due to incompetence or political games.

Paul Barford said...

Absolutely right and I posted this to show just how easily these ("can't happen here") things CAN happen.

I wonder just how easily fifty hoodies with hammers could be stopped if instead of trashing Sainsbury's they ran in the front doors of the BM and ran towards the back, spreading out as they went, smashing cases and objects encountered. How far would they get, and - no matter how quick the response - just what senseless damage could they do before they were caught? I shudder to think.

Of course the point is these situations should not be "beyond the control of the museum", but the Museum should have contingency plans for just such (and any and every type of) emergency situations.

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