Jan 15, 2008

The Lewis Chessmen

On December 19th, Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, stated "I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessment are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland."

The Barnett formula is a means by which the United Kingdom allocates its expenditures. This statement is sure to gain support among those Scots who feel England has been harassing and plundering Scotland for centuries. However I find the claim for the removal of all the chessmen to Scotland half-hearted. If one were to be unkind it could be called intellectually laze, intended to strengthen the notion of an independent and historically separate Scotland. It's the kind of irresponsible and base nationalistic claim that does a disservice to legitimate repatriation claims.

The Lewis chessmen are a medieval collection of 93 pieces forming four or five complete sets. They were most likely carved in Norway in the 12th century, and then were likely taken by a merchant on their way to nobles in Ireland perhaps. However the pieces were lost, and were rediscovered sometime shortly before 1831 on a sand bank near the Bay of Uig on the West coast of the Isle of Lewis. The island at the time was ruled by Norway. The precise details of the discovery are unknown, but they were exhibited by Roderick Ririe at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831. Soon after 10 pieces were purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and this collection eventually was donated to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh in 1888, now the National Museum of Scotland. The remaining pieces were purchased in 1831 for the British Museum in London.

The pieces are fantastic, and reproductions of the set are quite popular. They are carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, and many of the human figures are quite expressive. In fact, the representations have a lot to teach about medieval weapons and dress.

Ian Jack in an excellent article in the Guardian examines the possible claims Scotland might have to all of the chessmen, and rightly comes to the conclusion that

It would be easy to accuse Salmond of nothing more than opportunism, adding to his reputation for that streak. In fact, he has been sporadically campaigning for the return of the Lewis Chessmen for 10 years. My explanation is that his demand comes out of a previous era of nationalism that was quite blind to Scotland's history as England's imperial partner - needed to be blind to it, because in terms of wealth it was Scotland's golden age and inconvenient to anti-English grievance. I had thought that the grievance mode was passing. But not yet, not yet.


Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum contacted Scotland's culture minister, to ask if the statement was serious: "Because if it is, we need to understand the principles that lie behind it." No response has apparently been sent to this query. What kinds of events can trigger a return? In the case of the string of the recent repatriations from American institutions to Italy, they came in response to solid evidence, including photographs that the returned objects had been looted, in violation of Italian law. In other cases, if an object is an ethnographic object important to ongoing religious or community practices for example, an excellent case can be made for a return; such is the case with vigango from Africa. However Salmond is unable to provide this kind argument for a return. His motivating animus seems to be that a unified set would make a great deal of money for the National Museum of Scotland or the Isle of Lewis. In fact in 1995 a complete exhibition of the chessmen was held on the Isle, and it attracted record crowds.

Salmond has been making this claim since at least 1996. In a Sunday Times piece by Alastair Robertson from 1 Dec. 1996 Salmond argued "just as the Elgin marbles should be restored to Greece ... so should ancient artefacts come home to Scotland. There is no justification for them to remain in England." Now this policy has some troubling consequences for Scotland's museums. Its collections are packed with objects taken home by Scots during the colonial era, and many of these objects were hardly taken in a properly bargained for exchange. These institutions would surely have to quickly dispose of much of their collection. In fact, the chessmen were legally acquired, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest they were wrongfully acquired. If we were to return these objects to their homeland where they were created, they would not return to the Outer Hebrides, but rather to Norway.

Given the fact that Great Britain has such an ancient and fascinating history, it is perhaps unsurprising that various communities have called for the return of various objects. Inhabitants of St. Ninian's Isle have begun to call for the return of medieval treasure, currently housed at the National Museum of Scotland. Many of these arguments would appear surprising to visitors to others from larger and more disparate nations. Scotland is after all not much larger than South Carolina.

When objects are allocated to regional museums, it makes the risk of theft and other difficulties more pressing. A handful of regional institutions are more difficult to safeguard than larger centralized locations of course. More importantly though, these objects should have a substantial curatorial or cultural imperative which dictates a return. If Salmond is able to construct or to offer such a narrative, perhaps he will move beyond base political rhetoric. If he's looking for an example, perhaps he should take a look at the St. Louis Museum of Art's exhibition of George Caleb Bingham's The Sunday Election, which Tyler Green praises today.
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