I still remember the face and voice of the villain in the first Indiana Jones movie I saw as a kid. I think the character’s name was Belloq and he said something like this: “Dr. Jones, it appears that there is nothing you possess that I cannot take away.” Then he grabs the indigenous Peruvian treasure straight from Dr. Jones’ hand-- with the loin-clothed natives as witnesses-- right after Jones had risked his life (and his vintage hat) to get that ancient piece of whatever-it-was. Belloq was clearly the bad guy and Jones the good guy. But they had something in common: Both were searching and fighting for priceless archeological artifacts in far-off countries that were not their own.
Belloq was a stylish, French bastard, but I recently imagined him with a thick British accent while strolling through the British Museum in London. I pictured him in his cream-colored Banana Republic suit at the Parthenon in Athens, on the shores of the Nile in Egypt, on Easter Island next to one of those huge stone statues. Each time he turned his nose up at the natives and arrogantly said the same thing he’d said to Indiana Jones. Essentially: ‘I am better than you, I am the rightful owner of this because I’m smarter, I know it’s true value, and I could care less if I invaded your country to take it!’ Meanwhile, the natives shake their heads and call him a son-of-a-bitch under their breath while recognizing the futility of fighting against agents of a modern, industrialized power. I imagined these scenes in this cinematic way because almost every item in the British Museum was acquired in the style of Belloq—that is, stolen by an entitled representative of imperialism.
After 2 hours of being awed by all the abducted relics, I exited through the museum lobby and eyed the comment cards that said: Tell us about your visit. I assumed correctly that there wouldn’t be enough space for me to write what I really wanted to tell them. There was a multiple-choice area where you could check a number of boxes in response to:What did you like the most? Unfortunately, there wasn’t a box that said “Free admission”. I did like that it was free. I mean, they asked for donations, but who really gives what they’re asking for ($7) knowing that all the crap in there is swindled loot anyways? Sell a few of those marble busts of Greek philosophers and they could cover not only the price of a million visitors, but also begin to help Greece out of it's financial crisis. And they expect a donation from me?—I don’t even have a real job! And think of the audacity of the museum asking for donations if you were an Egyptian, Greek, Indian, or Persian (etc.) visitor. In that case there might as well be a Brit butler type next to the donation box saying: ‘For a small donation, you’re welcome to see the brilliant artifacts we kindly stole from your country when we subjugated your people. No hard feelings. We recommend giving 5 pounds. Cheers, mate!’
The bottom of the British Museum comment card said: ‘If you have a question that can be answered today please ask the information desk. Alternatively, please complete the form and submit your comments.’
My questions ‘answered today’!? Without going into great detail, the museum collection reeked of bad karma (which is deceptively odorless) and was a reminder that the world is not fair; that we suffer from historical amnesia; and that nauseating, capitalist clichés remain the bottom line: ‘to the victor go the spoils’ and so on. Then I heard David Cameron’s voice emerging in the back of my head in response: ‘Don’t be foolish, mate-- we can’t just give it all back. It’s common sense, chap’—which reminded me that ‘common sense’ is not always right, or just, or necessarily makes any 'sense' at all. Because-- though hundreds of pieces in the British Museum should be returned to their original country—the initiation of any such retroactive, reparation policy would set off an endless path of claims and compensation nightmares backdating to, when, World War II? The Renaissance? The Roman Empire? And I realized I had tons of other questions, most of which could not be ‘answered today’ nor could they all fit on the 5x8 inch comment card—the ones that likely end up going unread, straight to the British museum's recycling bin.
As I left the building, I was shocked again—not by another display of the museum’s pirated contents, but at myself. It was the first time—despite my nerdy study of modern imperialism and colonial history—that I’d considered Indiana Jones to be in the wrong. He used to be my hero, my role model, but now he'd become the American version of Belloq, assuming the right to intervene and act in foreign countries before questioning his role as an uninvited agent of empire. So, instead of writing some long-winded rant about historical crimes and the evils of imperialist mentality, I simply wrote this on the back of the comment card: