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22 September 2020updated 23 Sep 2020 9:02am

From the NS archive: The attempted outrage at the British Museum

12 January 1918: Politicians and rulers would do well to remember that history is in the keeping of artists and men of learning.

By New Statesman

This unsigned editorial, written in the final year of the First World War, considers the intellectual dilemma at the heart of Lord Rothermere and Sir Alfred Mond’s proposal to set up the headquarters of the Air Board at the British Museum, making the building an even greater target for German bombers. The proposal was declined, but, the writer declared, this whole debacle suggested that, “in the view of the government, science and art do not matter”, a dangerous viewpoint for postwar Britain. “We, more than our fathers, need to make use of every ounce of our inheritance of knowledge,” the writer concludes.

***

In the first days of the war, nothing shocked the world more than the attitude of the Germans to libraries and famous buildings. We felt that the signature of their guilt was more fatally legible in the burning of Louvain and the bombardment of the Cathedral of Rheims than even in the shooting of hostages and the murder that was red in the streets. If a poet wished to indict the Kaiser as a man of war, his rhetoric put on its strongest colours when he thought of him as:

You that wrecked the rose of Rheims,
You that sacked Louvain.

We did really feel in those days that a race of barbarians was pouring down on our ancient and beautiful world – a race as terrible as that of which Shelley was thinking when he wrote in the Ode to Naples:

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The Marches of the North lead forth their legions
     Like Chaos o’er creation, uncreating;
An hundred tribes nourished in strange religions
And lawless slaveries – down the aerial regions
     Of the white Alps, desolating,
     Famished wolves that bide no waiting,
Blotting the glowing footsteps or old glory,
Trampling our columned cities into dust,
Their dull and savage lust
On Beauty’s corpse to sickness satiating –
They come.

So far as we remember, Mr. Bernard Shaw was the only prominent writer on the side of the Allies who refused to be upset, as people say, by the German outrages on libraries and cathedrals. He is one of the few honest futurists living, and believes that the coming generation ought to create beautiful things itself instead of wringing its hands over the destruction of beautiful things that have had their day. Apart from Mr. Shaw, however, there were one or two more private cynics who went about saying that, after all, the people who were making the greatest fuss about Louvain and Rheims were men who were notoriously indifferent to learning and beauty – men who were as likely to admire the Albert Memorial as Rheims Cathedral, and who would grudge spending on a book the price of a single luncheon. It was a case, the cynics told us, of the British vulgarian denouncing the German barbarian –not for love of Louvain, but through hatred of Germany.

We are far from admitting even now that the cynics were right. But how Lord Rothermere and Sir Alfred Mond have played into their hands! Even the defeat of the proposal to set up the headquarters of the Air Board in the British Museum will not free them from the guilt of having injured the good name of England throughout the world! It would, of course, be a ridiculous exaggeration to pretend that the proposal to militarise the British Museum is an irreparable outrage of the same magnitude as the burning of the library at Louvain. We make no such childish suggestion. We are afraid, however, that the action of Lord Rothermere and Sir Alfred Mond and the action of the Germans have this point of contact: that they were both the outcome of a profound and vulgar contempt for the things of the mind.

Their action has been interpreted – and how else could it be interpreted? – as an assertion that, in the view of the government, science and art do not matter. Sir Alfred Mond, we are informed by the Daily Telegraph, did not even pay a preliminary visit to the museum to discover whether it was in any way suitable for conversion into government offices. After all, it was only the British Museum – one of the half-dozen most important buildings in the world no doubt (on account of its contents) – a mighty capital of art and learning in comparison with which even Louvain and Rheims sink into mere insignificance – but who cared about it? What sacred associations does it possess for the new peerage and the new baronetage compared to the Ritz and the Savoy?

We contend that Sir Alfred Mond, in endorsing the acquisition of the museum by the Air Board without even paying it the courtesy of a visit of inspection, showed a culpable negligence of the interests of the British nation – and, indeed, of the civilised world – which unfits him to occupy his present position. To have acquiesced in his action would have been for the English people an acceptance of Napoleon’s contemptuous description of them as a nation of shopkeepers. Fortunately, the English are not a nation of shopkeepers merely – they are also a nation of poets and discoverers. Genius is a more famous English product than cotton or even chemicals or Sunday newspapers. The proportion of Englishmen with a reverence for genius, whether in the arts or the sciences, is far greater than is realised by politicians whose conception of high thinking does not rise above the level of the Old Testament dentistry of a tooth for a tooth and a loaf for ninepence.

The resentment which was felt by such men at the proposal to convert the British Museum into a fair target for German bombs was, we are glad to say, hardly less strong than the resentment that would have been felt against the German airmen themselves had they succeeded in bombing the museum. Were the museum library to be destroyed by a bomb from the air as a consequence of the plans of Lord Rothermere and Sir Alfred Mond, the guilt would be entirely on the shoulders of these ministers. Theirs would not be the hand that released the bomb; but theirs would be the hand that guided it. Nor could they demand acquittal on the plea that the Germans are just as likely to bomb a museum as the headquarters of an Air Board – either deliberately or as a result of the inevitable wildness of their aim.

It is folly to take for granted that no German airman can ever hit what he aims at. Even if this were true, we hold that no minister has the right to turn the bombing of the British Museum from a German crime into a German duty. To do so would, in our opinion, be an English crime which history will not forgive.

Politicians and rulers of all sorts would do well to remember that history is in the keeping of artists and men of learning; and artists and learned men have enough of the spirit of a trade union to measure statesmen to some extent according to their attitude to learning and art. They have kept the fame of Alexander bright because, when destroying Thebes, he spared the house of Pindar. Marcellus, noblest of the Romans of his time, never wins the heart of Plutarch more surely than by the passion with which he turned from the Roman soldier who had killed Archimedes after the capture of Syracuse. The killing of Archimedes was, in a sense, a commonplace incident of war, and a politician of the modern school would no doubt have found plenty of reasons and excuses for it.

According to Plutarch, however, “it is generally agreed that Marcellus was afflicted at his death, and turned away from his slayer as from a polluted person and sought out the kindred of Archimedes and paid them honour.” This, too, happened at a time when as Plutarch says, ” the Romans were considered by foreign peoples to be skilful in carrying on wars and formidable fighters; but of gentleness and humanity and, in a word, of civil virtues, they had given no proofs.” Homage to science, homage to genius, homage to art, these have always been regarded as the mark of a noble nature. Such homage comes naturally to most civilised men. We were interested to read the other day in Mrs. Pope-Hennessy’s life of Madame Roland that “when the Allies invaded France in 1815 they exempted the village of Ermenonville from taxation out of respect for the memory of Rousseau”.

The fact that this reverence for genius has been handed on like a torch from one age to another is not accidental. It is the sign of civilisation. Let us lose this reverence and we shall sink back among the savages. We shall have betrayed the treasures of the race. We shall lose rank as civilised men, and shall become but itinerant maws – a clever combination of purse and stomach walking on two legs.

What moved the intelligent public to the extreme of indignation on hearing of the suggestion to hand over the British Museum to the Air Board was the feeling that, here at a time when the world’s great need was for more light, the politicians were officially ranging this country on the side of darkness. It was the symbol even more than the thing itself that seemed such an outrage. We have now reached  a stage at which the human race will, if it is to advance, have to turn itself from a race of working men into a race of thinking men. Ignorance, which in the past has been regarded as the natural lot of the average man, will in the future be a danger to the State. Educationists are speculating on the means by which the mind of the race can be enabled to keep pace with the needs and resources of the race.

To rely on the natural intelligence of a few leading men is no longer sufficient. It is only a nation of highly-trained intelligences that can hope to survive in a century of world-problems and chemistry and aeroplanes and scientific management. We are no idolaters of machinery, but an era of machinery is, at least, an era in which mind must more than ever triumph over matter. And, whether in the sphere of matter or of mind, the world is undoubtedly only on the eve of its discoveries. We are faced with problems such as no other time ever knew. We, more than our fathers, need to make use of every ounce of our inheritance of knowledge. We have to go to school, to the libraries. Hitherto an educated man has been a rarity, a strange creature, a monster whom the world half-admired and half-despised.

Hereafter it will be the uneducated man whose appearance will cause astonishment even in the public-houses. To propose to commandeer the British Museum for war purposes is to show oneself blind to the signs of the coming times – to take one’s stand on the old contempt of education and to flout the future. For to flout the past is to flout the future. We cannot build the new world except on a foundation of yesterdays. Cut off from his memory of a thousand yesterdays, the civilised would be scarcely on a higher level than the South African Bushmen. Civilisation is only another name for a long racial memory. The British Museum is one of the great temples of the memory of Europe. That is why an indignity to the British Museum has seemed to so many people an outrage on civilisation.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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