It’s not often that cuneiform tablets are in the news these days, so I’ve “enjoyed” following the recent articles about the disputed 2500-year-old Persian tablets at the University of Chicago. This is a long standing problem, of course, and I don’t really want to get into the various legal and political arguments.
However, the points being made about the “irreplaceable scholarly data” represented in these tablets reminds me of the old question, “if you could save either the artifacts in your museum, or the information about those artifacts, but not both, which would you choose?” This is also a good question for a class of LIS students learning about museum information systems, BTW.
Of course, in class, I initially answer this question by saying, “well, that depends…” — but I usually end up coming down on the side of “saving the information” — because as much as I’d hate to lose the original objects, I argue that most of what we know about those objects is not contained within those objects. Saving the objects, therefore, could make it difficult if not impossible to recover the lost information — and thus saving the information could be more important in the long run in terms of contributing to humanity’s knowledge-base (but being a good professor, I can also argue the other way, if you prefer).
This takes me back to the Cuneiform tablets — and indeed the general question of repatriation vs. scholarship. As digital surrogates and visual representations of museum artifacts increase in quality, how will those advances affect these arguments? If the thousands of tablets at the University of Chicago were scanned as part of the Digital Hammurabi Project (plus see conference paper) or the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, would there be less concern about giving the tablets up?
If you have any ideas, be sure to send your email in cuneiform!