“The Cultural Repository,” by Katherine Cowley

Apr 20th, 2022 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The following is a transcription of an informal speech given by Cetulianfernstar, the Honorable Arts Chancellor of the Interplanetary Cultural Repository, to a small gathering of four Ambassadors of the Transcendent Planets. During the speech, the four guests received Transcendent drinks that had been spiced with Earthian sea salt, as well as a platter containing eight samples of Earthian food: biryani, pavlova, sushi, solyanka, mandioca frita, sucrinha, pizza, and, in the central place of honor, to celebrate the importance of Easter Island to Earth, a dessert called po’e.


The day we transported the British Museum, twenty thousand humans spilled out of the Underground and took to London’s streets in protest. In their hands—humans possess only two, but still manage to use them quite effectively—they carried all manner of inventive signs: “You Can’t Spell Earth Without Art,” “My Heart Belongs to the British Museum,” “Our History Should be Grounded in Our Soil,” and “Earth Should Brexit the Alien Pact.” (This last refers to the human affinity for exiting larger governing bodies and then suffering disastrous consequences.) We hope to purchase these original protest signs for a future exhibit at the Cultural Repository.

We offered our own forces to maintain the peace, but the Earth government insisted they could handle their own protesters. We allowed them this, and they did arrest some forty-six humans. We kept our forces standing by, ready to assist should the slightest need arise. One of our clever officers printed three thousand copies of a traditional human sign, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Our forces waved these signs in the air, and we believe it did much to diffuse the tension.

Yet the tumult about the British Museum did not end. Earth’s Prime Minister, Fatima Costa, graced me with a videocall the very next day, and presented a petition signed by the leaders of 195 of Earth’s countries.

“We are flattered that you find our British Museum so fascinating,” said Minister Costa. “However, we feel that it would be best for everyone if the museum and its cultural artifacts remain on Earth where they can be appreciated in their original context, rather than being taken elsewhere.”

“My dear minister,” I said, for humans prefer these sorts of endearments, “Take is a very strong word.”

“No, it is a soft word,” she said. “Many of our concerned citizens have used stronger ones, like steal, though of course I would never put it that way myself.”

I appreciated her rhetoric, and she seemed to recognize how little power is held by the prime minister of a small planet. “We never take,” I explained kindly. “You do not have a word in any of your human languages for quite what we are doing, but it is best if you see it as reclaiming. Expropriating. Reallocating.”

“Reallocating,” she said dryly.

“Earth signed the Pact,” I reminded her. “Transporting repository museums to the Cultural Repository is mentioned in part 53b of section 7132.”

“Your Cultural Repository is on a planet 240 light years from Earth.”

“Tut, tut, my dear human. You know as well as anyone that it only requires ten human weeks of interstellar travel to cross that gap.”

“Be that as it may, these priceless artifacts will now be utterly inaccessible for the majority of Earth’s population. What will you do next, take the pyramids?”

“My dear human,” I said, giving extra emphasis to the endearment. “If you had read the Pact in more detail, you would know that we would never take the pyramids. We never transport artifacts, buildings, or cultural sites that remain in their native region. The pyramids, and even the Egyptian Museum, will remain in their present location. The British Museum is filled with objects that were, and I use your word here, stolen from their original locations. Think of the Balawat Gates, the Nereid Monument, the Parthenon statues, the Amaravati, the Rosetta Stone, the Ooni statue, and some thirteen million other items, the overwhelming majority of which did not originate in London.”

The Prime Minister of Earth spent a moment gathering her thoughts, and then attempted to make further arguments. “Some of these artifacts that you have…transported…have religious and spiritual significance. For instance, the Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most important statues to the residents of Easter Island.”

“If your planet cared about the statue’s religious and spiritual significance to Easter Island, you would have returned it to Easter Island long ago. But because of its significance, we will reserve three percent of our annual Cultural Repository scholarships for citizens of Easter Island.”

“Cultural Repository scholarships?”

“We understand that it can be challenging to gather the funds to visit the Cultural Repository and experience the culture of the universe. As such, we will provide Earth citizens with five thousand scholarships a year to visit the Cultural Repository. This will include the costs of travel, and room and board for one month.”

“That is a paltry number compared to the population of Earth.”

“Then we shall make it six thousand scholarships.” In situations like this when you have, as they say on Earth, the “upper hand,” it is best to be generous.

“Many will still be unable to visit,” said Minister Costa. From her tone of voice, she clearly knew she had lost the argument.

“Which is why we will provide a complete interactive virtual reality tour of the British Museum, free of charge, for your entire population.”

“Why don’t you use virtual reality for your Cultural Repository, instead of taking our museum?”

“You know as well as I do that there is more meaning when you experience a real object rather than a virtual one.” I discreetly gazed at the time, an unusual, yet mandatory, Earthian gesture which signals that a conversation is ending. “I apologize, my dear minister, but I must see to the other museums.”

“You’re taking more of our museums?”

“Only the very best ones. Attempting to prevent it would be a futile gesture on your part. They are being prepared for transport as we speak.”

I shut off the call before Minister Costa panicked.

I agree—the whole ordeal was quite amusing.

Unfortunately, in an unprecedented feat which was quite uncharacteristic of the Earthians, they managed to dismantle dozens of their best museums and returns tens of thousands of artifacts to their rightful locations in less than forty-eight hours. As a result, we were only able to transport a handful of other Earthian museums to the Cultural Repository, which makes our acquisition of the British Museum and its contents even more remarkable.

I hope that you will see fit to visit the British Museum, the newest jewel in our collection, and that you bring a delegation with you. The collection is vast, and we have even retained the original human docents. Yes: you can see a live human, and touch their hands (but only their hands, please; they don’t appreciate it when you touch other body parts). So come, come see the best of what Earth has to offer, without taking the needless effort of traveling to Earth itself.


Katherine Cowley has visited the British Museum, but only in its original Earthian location. Her debut novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also the author of The True Confessions of a London Spy and the forthcoming The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Defenestration, as well as in Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales365 TomorrowsSegullah, and in other publications.

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