Miss Tanner did not always travel alone but also with friends. She knew people in the Foreign Office and was therefore able to stay at British delegations from time to time - but she was also happy to stay in a tent. She kept a diary, which is held in the Bristol Museum. My favourite quote from it is her description of Baghdad:
"...as we came in sight of Baghdad, it looked like a fairy city with the palm-fringed river, orange gardens, the houses on the waterside like Venice, and all her mosques and minarets gleaming in the yellow evening sunlight."
Talk about poignant. She also wrote:
"The palm-fringed banks, the shipping, the creeks and above all the dazzling sun-light of Bussorah (Basra) charmed me."
Of course, the museum curators want to observe the current pieties and point out that the things Miss Tanner brought back are not just things but:
1. "reminders of Britain's less than exemplary past involvement in international affairs" and "the fragility of "cultural heritage; and
2. objects that give us a chance to "celebrate" (dreaded word) the "extraordinary artistic and cultural output of the Islamic world".
In similar vein, while grudgingly admitting that Miss Tanner did not actively steal what she brought home, ("Although Tanner paid for the items she acquired"), they label her "an appropriator of Persian artistic culture", as they think that she bought some tiles that may have been removed from historic buildings Iran. Leaving aside the question of whether she herself had any idea of the possibly dodgy provenance of the tiles she bought, there is also a debate to be had over whether whatever she brought home would have survived in situ or whether it might long since have been plundered or destroyed in the Iranian revolution and the years since then. On the one occasion when she did souvenir some tiles without payment, it does appear from her account that, had she not done so, they would have been lost to posterity anyway:
"...from the ruined palace adjoining the Aineh-Khaneh", she writes, "I abstracted three tiles from a small inner chamber leading into the bath. I was ashamed of myself for this act of vandalism, but it seemed to me, seeing how these beautiful tiles were suffered to fall off and lie neglected on the ground, that they would be better appreciated by me than the Persians."
Of course, the Englishwoman is making quite a few assumptions there, but our current tendency to rush to judgment on our predecessors does seem to me to be very one-sided. It is possible that she has a point, that the culture that produced the tiles had, at the moment when she was visiting, run down to the extent that the fine things created in earlier times were no longer being appreciated or cared for. While her action was still wrong, it is not quite as reprehensible as the curators want us to believe - more human error than imperial pillaging, I would say.
The curators also highlight what they call Miss Tanner's "extraordinarily superior and dismissive" attitude to the foreign cultures she observes, providing the following examples to support their case:
1. She referred to "the terrible immorality of the Persians";
2. "When being taken around Kermanshah by Hadji Adur Rhamann, a cultured ex-diplomat who served in London and Europe, she writes:
'I really pitied the poor man, trotting me round in this manner. Of course to the oriental mind one is mad to move about in the heat of the day, and go hither and thither looking at antiquities and places of no interest to the native'"
To my eye there is nothing at all superior or dismissive in this, apart from a sense of self-dismissive shame that such an eminent person should have to bother with her. Miss Tanner expresses embarrassment because she, with her trivial pursuits, is wasting the time of such a distinguished figure - but I suppose the phrase 'oriental mind' and mention of the word 'native' are enough to set off hypersensitive alarm bells. The curators mention elsewhere in the catalogue that Miss Tanner also was swept away by the kindness and hospitality of all she met, but somehow her appreciative words are no kind of mitigation for her sin of being western:
"Never by any possibility could I experience greater or more delightful hospitality and kindness than I met with in Persia"
3. "She describes with typical frankness her attitude to religions she is not fully engaged with:
'I am told it is far better to profess Christianity in Persia than to be a Suni Mahommedan, as the Persians are bigoted Shiahs, and regard the Sunis much as an extreme ritualist of the Anglican Church does an evangelical or a dissenter'".
Surely drawing a direct analogy with her own religious culture is actually a sign of egalitarianism - Miss Tanner does not describe the religious traditions in the countries through which she travels as being lower than her own, but parallel with. But the trigger word for the sensitive curators here is probably 'bigoted', even though I think it would be hard to argue that there are no sectarian divisions between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims in the area about which she writes. The truth is that she was an enthusiastic admirer of the beauty produced by Islamic culture, which is why she collected so many things to take home. As she notes in her diary, while in Baghdad "an enlightened Mahomedan gentleman close by [took me to] his roof top from [where] we looked over the Mosque, which for beauty I still think the finest I have ever seen, so exquisite are its proportions." You don't describe the product of a civilisation you despise as "exquisite".
But sadly, as happens so often these days, the people in charge of the exhibition see the world from a very particular contemporary perspective, wherein cultures other than their own Judaeo Christian one are to be praised, while their own cannot be condemned firmly enough. If, by chance, some aspect of a foreign culture is impossible to frame as positive, any criticism will ideally be couched in an understanding that the unacceptable cultural flaw is somehow the result of the pernicious earlier interventions of the west. In this way of looking at things, Judaeo- Christian culture has done almost nothing positive but has trampled and damaged other cultures wherever it has gone. I think sometimes of the impressive and highly original essay about living in Saudi Arabia with which Hilary Mantel won the inaugural Shiva Naipaul prize; in it, Mantel describes her attempts to embrace the culture in which she found herself living and her final acceptance that she could not, that some cultures are not worth embracing. I wonder if it would still be a prizewinner - or even published - in today's climate.
As for the concept of autre temps, autre moeurs, that has evaporated into thin air. Modern preoccupations elbow out any allowances for earlier, different perspectives.
Never mind: plundered or purchased fairly and squarely, here are the things I particularly want to "celebrate" from my visit to the exhibition:
|Box, carved pear wood, Iran (Abadeh) 19th century - the decoration copies bas-reliefs at Persepolis|
|This seemed an oddly racy item for a woman of Miss Tanner's age, although the label claims that it "would have been worn with a ... chemise".|
It is worth clicking on the photographs to enlarge them, so that you can see how lovely the stitching is:
|19th century silk and wool embroidered bags from Iran|
|Embroidered shawl (although probably used as a tablecloth), Kerman, Iran, 19th century|