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An act of historic vandalism rather too close to home: The tragic destruction of the Hinton St Mary mosaic at the British Museum

We were all rightly shocked by the terrible destruction of historic artefacts by the extremist Muslim faction who claim to be an Islamic State. These works were part of the whole worlds cultural heritage and their loss is a loss for us all. However diminishing the value of such historic cultural works of art to the point where they might be destroyed is not limited to extremist religious factions. You might be surprised to learn that the destruction of similar important works happens right here in London. And who is responsible for this destruction? Well in this case the very people responsible for their protection, The British Museum.

One of the British Museums ‘100 objects’: The Hinton St Mary Mosaic

The Hinton St Mary mosaic was discovered in 1963 in a village in Dorset. It was a remarkable find, a large late period Romano British mosaic almost completely preserved over eight meters long and five meters wide. A beautiful example of the great Roman pavements incorporating hunting scenes and a panel depicting Bellerophon slaying the Chimera. This mosaic was made at a very important time in history, the fourth century AD, when the emerging Christian religion was beginning to appear alongside the Roman religion. But what made this particular Roman mosaic so very special was its central panel, or emblamata.

Hinton St Mary mosaic
The Hinton St Mary mosaic in its full glory

The earliest depiction of Christ?

In the central panel we see what has been claimed to be a portrait of Jesus, portrayed in the Roman shaved style with the Chi-Rho emblem behind his head. Whether it is Jesus or perhaps the emperor Constantine, we may never know but this is clearly an extremely important image right at the birth of the history of Christian art, and if it is Jesus then it would be the only such portrait in the entire Roman World. It is this image that has gained the mosaic entry into the Museums ‘100 objects’. (A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor).

The shameful tale that the Museum hides.

After its discovery at Hinton St Mary, the mosaic was lifted from the site and moved to the British Museum by the British mosaic specialist firm ‘Art Pavements’. There it stayed as a central feature of the Roman collection for nearly 40 years until the recent development of the new Great Court by Foster Partners.

The Museum decided that the mosaic had to be moved – asked why, they answered that they had concerns that the construction work for the Great Court might damage the mosaic. Perhaps more truthfully their answer should have been that they resented the amount of space such a large work occupied.


The earliest portrait of Jesus?
The earliest portrait of Jesus? All that remains of the Hinton St Mary mosaic.

What happened next was unbelievable and outrageous.

Well that might sound ok, the mosaic was moved before, and it could be moved again, but what happened next was unbelievable and outrageous. The museum simply got its staff to break up the mosaic, completely demolishing it into pieces. Only the central panel itself was retained, and is now displayed in a box, a pitiful shadow of its former glory. How this could happen in a world class museum in the twenty-first century is beyond comprehension.

I interviewed Chris Smith, the former Director of ‘Art Pavements’ recently and asked him about the destruction. He was clearly outraged at what he saw as an act of vandalism and stated that it was completely unnecessary as moving the mosaic was quite feasible without damage.

The role of museums in the 21st century and the heritage of colonialism

The role of public museums such as the British Museum is clear:

To preserve and care for our cultural heritage and to make that heritage available for public study.

The British Museums failure to do this in this particular case should also bring up important questions about artifacts from Britain’s colonial pillaging around the world. Their argument in many cases for not returning artefacts to the origin countries has been that of concern for artefact safety. Yet here we see that Britain own cultural heritage is not so safe in their hands. Maybe it’s time for the British Museum to return such objects as the Elgin Marble’s, the Benin Bronzes and the Dunhuang paintings to their origin lands and fulfil it’s role preserving Britain’s heritage and presenting world heritage through touring exhibitions.

A pile of rubble in boxes?

So what will happen to this clearly important work now? Will it remain in the British Museum vaults, a pile of rubble in boxes? Because if that is it’s fate then this act of vandalism will remain just that, whatever the Museums motives, the end result is the same, a precious and important work has been effectively destroyed. In order to save this the museum must either restore the work and put it back on display, or perhaps return it to Dorset so it can be restored and housed there. The portrait of Christ alone is out of context, this was not a piece of mosaic portraiture, this was an integral part of a more complex floor whose meaning can only be understood by viewing it as a whole. The Hinton St Mary Mosaic is the most important Roman period mosaic in Britain and perhaps one of the most important Early Christian works of art in Europe – it’s preservation and display in public is of the highest priority.

…Or should we get the scissors out and start a new trend in space saving gallery exhibits?

Cropped masterpieces


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