Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sekhemka on the go?

The Sekhemka statue on show in the 1950s (photo: Wikimedia)

With great sadness one watched how swiftly the Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville seized to exist and the marvellous displays of long-gone Leicestershire toy industry and still strong clothes trade closed along with lovely play ground for children, train runs to celebrate the trade the town got its name and the theatre facility closed. The local trust did their best, but the doors were closed before the August high season. The county council got some savings, but has to pay back the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The councils and local government are under huge pressure to save, save, save and museums and such ‘soft’ areas without legal obligations are easy targets. Let’s hope that the ideological matters do not play part, since it would be sad to see that the Conservatives do not wish to conserve and present the past of the country they say they will make proud.

Much is spoken about the Heritage Industry, some of it with very critical tone of voice. During these hard times, safeguarding the core business should be paramount and if heritage industry means that the museums and heritage areas have updated information boards, new exhibitions, inform people of their past and the past of their area or the whole world in an experience that is fun and exciting for the whole family at a sensible price, so let it be so. If that will keep the archives and collections running and safe, the side-show will protect the intangible benefits in the future. Considering the customer is not a crime, some other things are more likely to be deemed, if not know, then in the future, a crime at least in the figurative sense.

I was flipping through the British Archaeology magazine and saw a series of linked articles on Egypt. One of them was on Sekhemka sale, the theme that has come up in local media in the East Midlands, Heritage Daily and different blogs, such as Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues. When I first read about it, I was not so alarmed, since I considered an Egyptian statue in a local museum without proper associated collections little a mismatch. However, then I thought again and realised that there are huge issues on stake here. First and foremost, after this sale no benefactor could not be sure if the material they donate to enrich the collections or archives will be pulped or sold the following week. The local authorities, organisations and archives can forget their duties and just concentrate on keeping the doors open and payroll running no matter what. It is just fair that the borough council lost its chance of the HLF grants with losing its Accreditation from the Arts Council and the Museum Association membership.

Even if the Sekhemka statue does not reflect directly the local archaeology, it definitely reflects the local history and general history of learned activity during the late 19th century. Every school child in Britain, no matter if in state or private school, does study ancient Egypt. When one examines the Sekhemka statue in detail, one realises how exceptional piece it is. With bright colours and beautiful reliefs of humans, birds and tasks it is an extraordinary object of art. Any local council owning it would benefit of it and could use it in profiling and teaching as much as they wished. In fact, by auctioning it to an unknown foreign bidder and causing the government to issue an export ban, they have managed to create an unusual amount of publicity to the issue and the statue at the same time as they are not got the benefits of positive publicity. Only underlined the fact that the people of Northamptonshire and Britain will potentially be robbed of this resource.

In addition, the Sekhemka statue reflects the complicated situation it was brought to the collections, as the British Archaeology explains in its article. The situation of export from Egypt and import to Britain in 1850 after a tour in Egypt by Compton, the 2nd Marquis of Northampton, during the winter of 1849/1850 is not clear. Thus, under the international law, actually, Egypt may have a claim to the statue as well. In addition, when the statue was sold at Christie’s on July 10 in 2014, the extraordinary hammer price of £14 million was split for no clear reason between the borough council and the 7th Marquis of Northamptonshire, due to the unclarity of the early history of the statue in the museum collections. There is no record of actual donation that makes the situation even more complex. The first mention of the piece is from 1899, when in a newspaper press cutting referred to a case filled with Egyptian objects collected by Spencer Compton as President of Royal Society and others. The 4th Marquis had donated the Borough of Northampton a geological collection of 295 drawers of specimens and for some reason a collection of Egyptian antiquities. In the museum inventory list the statue does not appear until 1920.

At least the 7th Marquis of Northampton has form in selling terms. He sold the Greek vase collection of Compton at Christie’s already in 1980. Luckily, Minister Ed Vaizey seems to appreciate the past more than his colleagues in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. The Sekhemka export ban has been extended until March 29, 2016. This is a double-edged sword to the Save Sekhemka Action Group. They argue that it would be ethically wrong for any UK museum or conglomerate to raise the £15,732,600 that is needed to match the hammer price plus a buyer’s premium according to the UK regulations. This would just leave the way open for councils to sell other items.

How could UK square the circle? Egyptian buyer to be found? Actually passing legislation to protect collections and heritage as advocated by Lord Renfrew? This is far from clear, since the action houses would see their business cut. UK and Switzerland are the only European countries that feed international arts market without protection. Will government protect British public property or sell it for profit? Ultimately, for government, does society exist or do they govern us without purpose? Do residents have right to know their past? Or will profoundly Neoconservatist economic ideologies be totally ahistoric, creating an intellectual vacuum, uncivilized nation?

One has to thank the British Archaeology and its Mike Pitts for excellent articles on the The Sekhemka sale, 2nd Marquis of Northampton and the related articles on Nefertiti looked for in Tutankhamun's tomb and the cententary of the Petrie Museum.
Stephen Quirke and Alice Stevenson wrote the article on the Sekhemka sale and Mike Pitts the one on the Marquis's travels and collecting that have been used to provide the facts in this text.
The British Archaeology is the magazine of the Council for British Archaeology - of course.

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