To discover the marvelous history of Ancient Egypt and its development of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, we don’t need to visit Cairo, Giza, Luxor, or Alexandria. Thousands of miles away from the African continent, in the first arrondissement of Paris, we’ll find the priceless treasure of Egyptian culture guarded by international institutions and the French country.
The Sully Pavilion in the Louvre Museum includes several key pieces of Ancient Egypt. Yet the most notorious works are not located in Paris, but across the English Channel at the British Museum. Both these collections of Egyptian art compete with the Cairo Museum and are inaccessible to most of the Egyptian people. They are in another continent, protected by CCTV, sensors, and guards.
Why are these relics that speak of a people’s history and identity so far from their original site? How did they get there?
At first glance, the most literal definition of pillaging is related to the violent plundering and theft of objects. In the art world, and as a matter of history, pillaging the pieces of a conquered and colonized land’s cultural heritage is an act of appropriation. The violence might not be as obvious during the process of domination and subjugation. Its effects are larger than mere theft and exhibition of the art in places far away.
What happened in Egypt also occurred in Latin America with the Mesoamerican peoples, subjected by the Spanish Conquest, and in the African nations by the British, French, and Dutch colonists. Most recently, this occurred in Europe with the rise of the Third Reich. All these takeovers respond to the same logic of colonization and pillaging of native civilizations, backed by a superiority narrative legitimizing their conquest.
Taking a closer look, pillaging is not just about the theft of historical objects of a particular nation. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the illegitimate appropriation of Moctezuma’s headdress, the mask of Tezcatlipoca, the Code of Hammurabi, the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon frieze taken from the Acropolis in Athens, or any other priceless piece possessed by a foreign cultural authority, behind each plundering there is a mechanism of dominance that attempts to disconnect the art from the culture it belongs to.
This silent strategy is just as destructive as artillery and cannon fire. It’s able to leave a culture on its knees and at the mercy of another. The pieces are taken from their original place, inspected, numbered, and exhibited to those privileged enough to visit them.
What was once a living memory of the geography, culture, art, and ideology of the civilization that created it is suddenly reduced to a mere fossil behind a glass, displayed to hordes of tourists who observe it as a piece of forgotten time. This is a way of confirming the end of a culture, through the perception of a piece as an old textbook, a boring documentary, or any lifeless object lacking any worth in our present life.
More than theft of an object, pillaging is the plundering and destruction of an entire people. It’s the triumph of obscurity over cultural memory and the definite break of the bonds between past and present. It’s a sign of burying the past and settle for recognition through its limited exhibition.
Translated by María Suárez