Byline: NEIL MACGREGOR
ABOUT five years ago, the British Museum began planning a major exhibition of the archaeology of the Sudan. Working with Sudanese colleagues, drawing on the collection of the National Museum in Khartoum, the aim was to tell the long story of a region traditionally overshadowed in British perceptions by its Egyptian neighbour.
The year 2004 seemed the obvious one to choose. It was the centenary of the Sudan National Museum, in whose foundat ion the British Museum was much involved, and so the exhibition would celebrate 100 years both of institutional activity in Khartoum and of happy collaboration between the two houses.
Most recently, collaboration has focused on preparations for rescue archaeology in the area that will be flooded when the Merowe dam at the Fourth Cataract of the Nile is built to provide much-needed hydroelectric power in 2008.
Last year at the British Museum, arrangements were finalised among a large group of international archaeologists, from Sudan, the UK, France, Italy, Poland, Germany and the USA, to ensure that the huge area that will then disappear underwater could be surveyed and dug in time.
The London exhibition would be a perfect opportunity to tell the world what was planned and to gather support for the work to be done.
We decided that September would be the ideal month to open the show. That was the date fixed for signing the peace treaty to end the civil war between north and south which has dogged Sudan for the past 20 years and cost millions of lives.
Presenting Sudanese history from the Palaeolithic (200,000 years ago) to the 19th century AD, the exhibition could point to a more prosperous future.
THEN came Darfur.
International cooperation now needs to address hu m a n i t a r i a n relief rather than rescue archaeology.
The peace treaty between north and south may still be signed, and that will be good, but the world will be looking instead at the dislocation and dispossession of the hundreds of thousands fleeing towards Chad, amid allegations that this suffering is the result of a continuing campaign of violence.
Like everybody else, I watch and am troubled by the television news, alarmed by the suggestions of a political agenda. But the question is not just how should I respond, but how should the institution respond? What can an exhibition achieve in circumstances like this ?
Feeding and sheltering the refugees must clearly be the priority. There are, I think, two things we can do: first, give money for instant help, then try to understand what is happening. So we have decided not to postpone the exhibition, for it has never been more important to understand Sudan.
It will, therefore, open next month, but not quite as planned. There will be no entrance charge: instead we shall ask all visitors to make a contribution to Oxfam and Save the Children.
What the British Museum must then try to show is the Sudan beyond the crisis, the Sudan in which the current disasters occurred and in which any solutions will necessarily be found.
Off the Mediterranean, up the Nile, to the side of the Red Sea, Sudan has been fated by its geography to be on the edge of great empires; too remote to be fully incorporatedtoo near to be ignored, always the awkward frontier strong enough to inflict humiliation and so to invite imperial reprisals.
Egyptians and Romans, Ottomans and British, all the great empires of the Middle East stub their toe on Sudan.
To walk through the rooms of the British Museum that house our Sudanese collection, the most comprehensive outside the country itself, or the forthcoming temporary exhibition, is to witness this troubled and troubling frontier: Sudan fighting and conquering the Egypt of the Pharaohs, then carrying off and ritually demeaning the bronze head of Augustus after a particularly successful raid on the Romans. …