Thursday, 27 August 2009

A cat "of" the British Museum

...and its name is: Gayer-Anderson cat.

The cat with golden earrings on its nose and ears - "piercing!!!" - shouted a group of young tourists from Manchester who were taking photos - just as we were, during our visit in the Egyptian sculpture hall of the British Museum. This bronze statuette of 600BC honoured Bast, the ancient Egyptian goddess of cats.

Nevertheless, the name Gayer-Anderson sounds strange.

The naming reminds me of the Parthenon Marbles, which were once called Elgin Marbles. (cf. ‘What are the Elgin Marbles?’)
After all, the Parthenon marbles were named Elgin marbles after Lord Elgin, the ambassador of the British Empire at the Ottoman court in Istanbul. “He acquired (sic) the sculptures in Athens between 1801 and 1805” (7) and sold them to the British Parliament, which in turn decided to offer them to the British Museum.

Don’t worry, through this post, I am not attempting to request the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles in Greece. I agree with Helen Hontolidou when she writes in her blog: “we did not come here to receive them like a parcel from the museum and carry them home. We do not even agree among us, if we actually want them back.”
I could nor agree more (with the disagreement). I believe that the Parthenon Marbles belong to the British Museum. This is what Museums do. They “acquire” objects and they give them names. This is an old habit from the past, when Great Britain was an empire.

A common characteristic of empires is that they name things «new» to them. Take for example lake Ukerewe (or Nanubaale) in Africa that was named Victoria by the British explorers Speke and Burton, who «saw it first!». They “named” the lake, as Adam did in the first chapter of Genesis, when he saw for the first time the creatures of Eden and gave them names.

Before them, Arabian explorers had already seen the lake - it has been recorded in the famous map of the artist Al Indrisi at 1160. Not to mention the obvious, that the lake had been «seen» and already «named» by the natives of the area long before the western world's argument about the sources of the Nile had started.

What’s in a name, then?

Why has this beautiful bronze depiction of Bast been named Gayer-Anderson (cat)?

That is the question.

Given the traditional way of the empire and the habit of ruling even among objects that belong to other civilizations, we understand why the “acquired” objects are given new names.
Most of us admire the exhibits but do not ask ourselves howcome they are there in the first place. One does not wonder «why is the cat of Bast in London?», or «why is the Caryatid in London?».

It so happens with the exhibits of museums. A nobleman or an official of the Empire, with an obvious «thirst for knowledge» “acquired” them at some point and brought them there. And then, from various areas of the world, the exhibits were collected in the same place so that , I quote: “the interactions can be studied” - the before and the after - and by then it is widely thought that this is where they have always belonged.These are the arguments expressed in the small video of the British Museum for the Parthenon Marbles. The curator, Mrs Bonnie Geer, “feels” that “they belong there”.

I do not argue with her, I do not want them back, we cannot change the past, but I do not “feel” the same way.

You cannot change the past. Even if you want to leave the memory of these “acquisitions” behind you, the names are always there. Like the name of this exhibit. The bronze cat is not called «Bast», Bastet or Nefar. It is provocatively called Gayer-Anderson, its name insisting on reminding us of the person who brought it to the museum.

On the other hand, I ask myself, who is Gayer – Anderson behind the name? Perhaps my bitterness is doing him injustice. On the other hand, I do not think that the visitors of the Museum learn anything about him, except his name and that cat.

Major Robert-Grenville Gayer-Anderson has abandoned a successful career as an orthopaedic surgeon at Harley Street after anwering the « inner call» to serve the empire - as a military doctor.

After a short stay at Gibraltar, he ended up in Cairo, where he studied the Egyptian civilization upon which he called himself an «Orientalist».
The Major became a poet, a collector of works of art and artefacts, a scholar. He often wrote in the ‘Sphinx’ and ‘Egyptian Gazette’ magazines.
I prefer to think of him in his study, in the Muslim Civilization Museum at the house of the Cretan Woman. This museum has been his life’s work.

The House of the Cretan woman - Bailt al Kretliya - was the legendary house of a Cretan woman - Muslim of course - where Major Robert-Grenville Gayer-Anderson lived his life’s happiest days, and which afterwards housed the museum.(1)

A name full of symbolism. A Cretan woman’s house is the labyrinth, the house of Ariadne.

Simonidis, the hero of the Greek writer Strati Tsirkas in Akyvernites Politeies (Drifting Cities), also lived in Ariadne’s (Cretan woman ) house.

This house is a living legend in itself.
According to the area’s traditions collected by the Major’s nephew, Theo Gayer-Anderson, it was there that Noah's Ark landed.
It is also connected to the place where Abraham stood to sacrifice his son and it was there - and not on Mt.Sinai - that the burning bush was seen and where Moses heard the voice of God. The traditions about that house were recorded by the Major in his Memoirs "Fatal Attractions" which has been by the Major’s nephew for his book "House of the Cretan Woman" (extracts from Google books: (2)) .

The house is literally legendary. A chamber of secrets, a lovers well, the snake of the house, the good spirit of Sheikh Hussein... it is the house of Sechrazade.

I imagine Bast, the cat, which was found in the area of Saqara, kept all these years near Gayer-Anderson’s desk, watching him writing his diary. He took her when he left Egypt, together with a few items from his collection, the greater part of which he left behind in Cairo, in the museum named after him.

This is the cat we saw it yesterday (22/7/2009), in the Egyptian Hall of the British Museum.

Internet sources:





R.G. 'John' Gayer-Anderson Pasha. "Legends of the House of the Cretan Woman." Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.

Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki