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The Pillage Cycle

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Pillage Cycle"

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800px-Ishtar_Gate_at_Berlin_Museum 1

Went to the Pergamon Museum yesterday and as I stood before the very impressive Ishtar Gate I couldn’t help but think to myself “If Iraq ever does emerge as a stable democracy whose government is a well-respected member of the community of nations, they’re probably going to want their awesome antiquities back.”

Later poking around elsewhere in the museum I found a sign that was sort of whining about how the Soviets stole a bunch of artifacts after WWII and then made a big show of returning them to the East German government in the early fifties but actually kept some stuff. Well, you can see why the Germans might not be thrilled with that outcome, but considering that they themselves carted all these artifacts off from foreign lands in the first place I’m not sure how much standing they really have to complain. Not that Germans were the only ones doing that (certainly some ill-gotten gains in Paris and London museums) but no honor among thieves, etc.

That said, the ups-and-downs of European conquest over the years have probably made museum-going an all-around better experience. Spain used to rule the Low Countries and parts of Italy so the big art museum in Madrid has paintings by Dutch and Italian masters along with the Spanish ones. That makes it a more interesting place than it otherwise would be, and Italy and it’s not like anyone stands around in the Rijksmuseum saying to themselves “I wish there were some more Dutch paintings here.” Similarly, had Jacques-Louis David not been hounded out of France by the Terror, The Death of Marat wouldn’t be in Brussels where it came as a much more unexpected surprise than it would have been in a French museum.

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