Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The National Portrait Gallery is racist, sexist, and snobby, but… what were you expecting?

September 20th, 2010 · No Comments

I think it will be beating a dead horse at this point to talk about the lack of diversity in the National Portrait Gallery, but I guess I have to a little bit, so sorry horsey. Truthfully, the whole politically correct, inclusive way of thinking about representation is a late 20th century idea. Until that time, when the movement towards serious examination of who is telling/included in the historical narrative was underway, the rich white male’s story was the story, and if it was questioned, it wasn’t questioned openly. So, it was no surprise to me to see walls covered in portraits of the aristocracy and the very famous movers and shakers, and to see no portraits of the poor, lower classes, or racial minorities. (It’s important to note that portraits were mainly done by commission, and to sit for a portrait was time consuming. The lower classes wouldn’t have been able to afford or have the leisure time to have their portraits painted.)

I was, however, surprised by the number of portraits of women I saw. Still not as many as men, but much more than I was expecting. One portrait in particular that caught my attention was the self-portrait of Mary Beale.

Mary Beale, by Mary Beale, circa 1665 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Beale, by Mary Beale, oil on canvas circa 1665 (Image from the National Portrait Gallery website)

I was immediately drawn to the richness and depth of the color (this is much more apparent in person). The draping of the Beale’s crimson and steely-plum silk dress suggests a solid, strong body beneath. Her expression is self-assured, yet humble, and she appears competent and adept. After admiring the painting for purely aesthetic reasons, I was even more interested when I read the accompanying text.

Beale worked as a professional painter from the mid-1650s, specializing in portraiture. She was the first Englishwoman to become a portrait painter of real distinction. A daughter of a Suffolk clergyman, by age 27 Beale was a very much in-demand portraitist, particularly for the clergy. Beale’s husband Charles, whom she married at age 19, was also a painter, and he acted as a studio assistant to Beale as well as kept records of all of her commissions. In the self-portrait above, a painter’s palette hangs on the wall in the background, referencing her profession, and she holds in her hand a canvas depicting her two sons, Bartholomew (1656-1709) and Charles (1660-1726).

It was so satisfying to see in the National Portrait Gallery a portrait of woman who was valued for something more than royal or aristocratic blood, or being a wife or mistress to someone of royal or aristocratic blood. How incredibly progressive, in the 17th century no less, for a woman to be honored and admired for her work as something other than being a madonna or a whore. To me, Mary Beale resembles quite closely the “ideal” modern woman. She was a wife and mother, but she was also a respected, talented, accomplished career woman, and that is what takes the historical precedence.


Schubert, Gudrun. “Beale, Mary.” In The Oxford Companion to Western Art, edited by Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e213 (accessed September 20, 2010).

Tags: 2010 Rachel

Give me a good reason why not

September 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Within the overarching theme of  “Community” in our London course, we have talked almost ad nauseam about religion. Not only have we visited churches, a Hindu mandir, a mosque, and a synagog, but the topic of religion and its related issues come up daily in discussions amongst ourselves. (Completely unprovoked by Professor Qualls!) Several members of our group are particularly religious, and their world views and values reflect this. The strength of these individuals’ faith and beliefs fascinate me. It amazes me that people my age seem to have already got it all figured out, they know where they stand, when I haven’t even really begun to piece things together.

Religion has always been a topic of interest to me, because I have always struggled with it. There are just so many questions that can never really be answered in indisputable, concrete fact, not to mention so many faiths to choose from. Somehow, I always have a hard time… well, buying it. So for a long time now I have pushed religion to the back of my mind, I’ve tried to avoid the uneasiness and discomfort that comes with thinking about it. But now, in this environment, it is unavoidable. As a Jew (at least secularly) this is a particularly hard time of the year for me, as Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, unobserved by me, and Yom Kippur fast approaches. Since I have gone to college and it has been up to me whether or not I attend services for the high holidays, I so far have not. This does not mean, however, that I haven’t still felt pangs of guilt when I have watched the holidays come and go, no matter how hard I try to feign indifference. I feel deeply connected to my Judaism culturally, and I would consider it my ethnicity more so than generic “white,” but it feels decidedly half-hearted without the spiritual connection.

Since I’m already on the brink of pouring my heart out on a class blog, I may as well just tip the whole damn pot over. As some of you may have noticed, I became visibly upset during our visit to the synagogue the other day. I’m not sure what came over me, exactly. I was shocked that I reacted so strongly to something I’ve seen before. At every religious institution we have visited, we have seen very blatant physical manifestations of the subjugation of women. Although my synagog at home does not separate the men and women, and we have even had a woman rabbi, the fact that such discrimination (and for me, outright belittlement) occurs anywhere in the Jewish faith AT ALL deeply upsets me and creates an enormous obstacle for me to be able to come to full acceptance.

It’s not just the head coverings and other “modesty” clothing articles, even the separate seating I can almost tolerate, (separate is NOT equal, think back to the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. not long ago) but its the fact that women are denied leadership positions and the top level and most sacred aspects of the religion. (We have seen this in every religion we have looked at.) As Jews, we are taught that the Torah is the most sacred, wonderful thing we could ever experience. It is supposed to hold all of the information we need, all the rules by which to conduct ourselves, all the history of our earliest ancestors. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to read from the Torah, and they are not allowed to have a bat mitzvah, the rite of passage comparable to a bar mitzvah which marks a Jew’s transition from child to adult. (The rules vary from congregation to congregation, but I am speaking here of the most extreme, by the book, traditional interpretation.) If there really is a god as we are made to believe, I cannot accept that such a “perfect” being would condone sexism in any way, shape, or form. How is it at all logical, that something such as the Torah should be denied to half of the Jewish population? (as the orthodox see it).

Our guide at the synagog only increased my distress with his attempts to convey that Judaism is a matriarchal religion. It’s really not. Judaism is traced through the mother only because it’s always obvious who the mother of the child is, whereas the father was much dicier to verify before the age of paternity testing. At the synagog we visited, women are not allowed to read from the Torah. They may be bat mitzvahed, but it is a much shallower, lesser version. I tried to speak to our guide about this after he had given his long-winded, unbearable shpiel and he literally walked away from me. I have witnesses. It could have been that he just needed to catch up to lead the group, but instead of saying so and offering to discuss it further later, he simply ran away. I have tried to ask these questions numerous times, to many different people, and never, ever have I gotten a satisfying answer.

We have heard the argument that it is cultural rather than religious, but, looking at it pragmatically, culture should be adapted to contemporary times if there is no conflict with the scriptures. Why wouldn’t you move forward if nowhere does it say you can’t? Why do women put up with this? Open, institutionalized racism has been virtually wiped off the map, why hasn’t sexism?

People who believe that women cannot read from the Torah, or be rabbis, or become a priest, or the Pope, or an Imam, need to quit squirming around the issue and say outright the clear message they are sending: You are less.

Tags: 2010 Rachel

Missing Queues

September 9th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Today I decided I would run my own Kate Fox type experiment while shopping on Oxford Street. Knowing how obsessed the British are reputed to be about their queuing, I intentionally stood out of place. I was the only person waiting in line for the cash register, so instead of standing in what was obviously the entrance to the queue path, I stood awkwardly to the side and began my own line. I even made sure to angle myself so that I was not directly facing the register, attempting to further the confusion. The results were quite amusing. One man it seemed had decided he was better of mumbling to himself and walking in circles rather than try to get behind me. Another shopper kept walking back and forth between where he knew the real queue should start and where I was standing. However I noticed that no one actually asked me if I was on the line. In the States, I would simply ask the person in front of me if they were waiting to be helped, they would give me an answer, and that would be the end of it. (Image taken from )
I definitely understand what Fox was talking about now, when she said that the British will harrumph and complain, but won’t actually take any action to solve their problem. A few simple words to me would have easily resolved the issue and we all would have felt a lot less awkward.

Tags: 2010 Sarah

Poor Manners, Flared Jeans and A City of Culture

May 11th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I had hoped that my interview experience with Mandell’s Gallery on Elm Hill would make up for Mr. Mandell’s poor email correspondence… it didn’t. I began to email and call the gallery after another art dealer that I should go and ask a few questions about the gallery suggested it to me. The first time I went into the gallery (around March), I told Mr. Mandell my name and about my research paper. He seemed interested enough, but said he didn’t have time for an interview at the moment. I told him that was fine (I know his business comes first) and that I would email him the questionnaire so he could fill things out at his earliest convenience. After a few weeks I began to email again, no response. I called to make sure I had the right email address. The woman on the line told me the Gallery was about to open a show of John Kiki’s works and that Mr. Mandell would be more available after the opening…. OK, so I wouldn’t have the interview until after the first draft of my paper was due. OK, not going to panic. After a week and still no response (email or otherwise) I decided to go into the gallery to see if I could get some answers. The way I was raised, this kind of behavior is unacceptable. If you receive email or a call, at least have the decency to respond…even if it’s just to say you’re too busy and to give a date when you WILL be available. Well, after I reintroduced myself to Mr. Mandell he kind of gave me the ‘I think I remember you, but I’m just not quite sure’ kind of look and then searched his inbox for my email. “Ah, yes” he said, “yes, I don’t really feel comfortable answering some of these questions…I think they are a bit leading” Alright, how does one respond to that? I’m sorry? I didn’t think my questions were that leading….just enquiring about the general policies of the gallery and what kind of people buy their art. Apparently Mr. Mandell’s competition is hot for him right now and they will do ANYTHING to learn his secrets. I was a bit taken aback, and although I assured him my research was purely academic, he was still unwilling to answer any questions about how he prices his art or what kind of client he markets for. Mr. Mandell, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, but I really don’t think you have any reason to worry…I am NOT going to spill any sort of insider gallery dealer secrets. I think you are probably a nice guy, especially after you told me you used to vent your jeans in the 60s to make them flare out…it’s cool, it was the 60s after all. Anyway…back to the point. While this interview was not as helpful on the specifics of buying art in Norwich, he did have some opinions on the general culture in Norwich. Essentially, Norwich has always been a bit of a hot spot for the arts…the only problem? Geographical isolation. However, this isolation made the arts in Norwich a priority as the people would have hardly been able to travel to London to see a play or a painting. Norwich has always had a thriving theatre (the first being the Maddermarket Theatre) and the Norwich School artists are probably the area’s most famous visual artists. Even today, the Norfolk and Norwich Contemporary Art Circle, the Playhouse Theatre and the city’s recent bid to become a UK ‘City of Culture’ keep this arts-rich area a cultural meeting place. Despite the provincial setting, the isolation has kept the art world in Norwich centered on Norwich. And with so many galleries opening in the last fifteen years, the people in this area still don’t have to travel down to London to acquire great art. Right now, I’d say the traditional subject matter of landscape and portraiture are still outselling the more abstract contemporary pieces, but the contemporary arts are on the rise. The trends in art (and other areas) will come and go, but Norwich will always remain a city of the arts.

Tags: Grace

Operation: Acclimation?

September 15th, 2009 · 1 Comment

This past week I have been reading ” Watching the English” by Kate Fox. Now I am not very far into it, but I am very intrigued with the topic. I feel as though I have found a way to observe a typical day for an average London tourist. This observation has led me to realize,  we don’t fall under this category, however we have succumbed to a few minor mistakes, making our nationality quite obvious. Now, my point in  this post is to address the American’s tendency to stick out. kinda?

One: The Tube
Depending on how large the group is, and depending on who is in the group, the moment the doors fly open we begin to fluster and annoy everyone on board. We, unaware of our high tones, are excited about what we’ve seen or where we are going, so why wouldn’t we talk about it? At this point I am unable to recall how many stares and glares our group of 27 have been flashed, and I personally have felt tense knowing everyone is horrified by our tones, but what is wrong with a little excitement? Why is it taboo to talk to each other on the train? Then again why are American’s so darn loud?

Two: Eating Too Fast (Food in General)
As of now, I have only sat down to eat about eight times. I enjoy my meal, even though it costs more when you choose to sit down, and then I leave. Why is it that they tack of a few pence and say “take away” every time you order? Why is it a different price? And why do all Americans say your dinning out and then sit anyways?  If your in a restaurant where you dine in, and have a waiter, it becomes a completely foreign experience for most Americas. I don’t know about you guys, but when we eat out at home, we go in, sit down, order right when the waitor comes up, eat, pay the bill, and leave. What is the rush? Here in London the service want’s you to take your time. When Amanda and I finished our meal at an Italian place down the street and asked for our check, we were asked a stream of questions including “did you not like it?”, “Are you in a hurry?”, “Why don’t you want dessert?” etc. Why do we rush meals, and why do the British dine leisurely?

And why do we have to ask for the check? I always forget about that!

Three: The Theater
This may be just a “me” complaint, but what happened to the glamour of going to the theater? Bright LIghts, fancy clothes, classy cocktails, beautiful people? As of now we have been to quite a few theatrical and musical performance and I can not help but notice how relaxed the event has come to be. When I was younger I remember every Christmas getting all dolled up to see the Nutcracker with family and friends. I also remember my first NYC Broadway performance, and feeling as though I needed to look beautiful just to enter the theater. Today the theater is the last event on a busy tourists agenda. So, dressed in jean shorts and cotton tank, shopping bags in hand they strut into the theater. Glamour-less? sad.

I guess I wanted to realize the obvious. As much as we attempt to fit into this culture, everyone will notice where your from.  We will always stand out. Our voices, our clothing, our eating habits, and our on the go attitudes; only to mention a few. We are different, and there is not way of hiding it. We cover this up, and ignore it, because were having fun and were happy, but think about it. Were foreign. We can judge the way the English think and act, but really, were the odd ones. I guess the question is, should we learn to conform in this upcoming year? Are we subject to lose our identities for the sake of fitting in?

All this talk of acclimating, now is it our turn?

Tags: Patsy

Pub Culture, More Than Meets the Eye

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

While you walk down the streets of London you will see; fashionable people, a variety of restaurants, small and big businesses, tourist venues, and of course pubs. But where as in America we have bars, Pubs are much more distinct. When you walk into a pub, you are not just walking into a social venue for you pleasure, because it is so much more complex. When one enters a pub they experience and deep rooted part of London’s culture, and might even discover what historical figures have done the same.

Having been to a few pubs, over these past four weeks, I can tell you first hand that when one enters a pub, it is unlike any other experience. The type of people that you will encounter will range in age, class, and ethnicity/race, but will all be seeking the same thing as you, a drink, and a good time. Something small yet so significant in British culture pubs serve as a venue for people to come together and simply enjoy the company of friends while unwinding from the stressed of the day. Although I am not a huge fan of beers, ails, or any other hardcore alcoholic beverages I will say that I thoroughly enjoy pubs.

It isn’t so much that I like being able to drink legally (although I do enjoy this very much) but the fact that there is a place where you can just unwind and enjoy the time spent with friends, reflecting on the days past. The overall atmosphere of a pub is what really adds to the experience, in that once inside can only be described as “chilled.” Pubs, are understandably a huge part of British culture, a distinctively the Court is a big part of Dickinson student culture. I guess it’s one of those things that you will have to experience yourself.

Tags: Anthony

The Myth of the English Pub

September 12th, 2009 · No Comments

Arriving in London almost a month ago now, one aspect of the city I was looking forward to experiencing was the pub. There was the obvious allure of being able to consume alcohol legally in a pub, but also I was intrigued by the mystique surrounding English pubs. Nearly everyone I had talked to about what to do with my time in London said that it was a necessity to spend numerous evenings in pubs. One family friend went as far to say that it just is not proper to go to England and not drink in various pubs. They also told me that I would be missing out on a vital part of English culture if I would not go to various different pubs for drinking and observing. Another friend who had lived here for a roughly two years said that she would let me experience the pubs firsthand before telling me her views on pubs and how they reflect on English culture. I thought it was more of an excuse so she wouldn’t have to discuss the cultural importance of pubs.
But now that I have spent nearly a month here in London during which I have been able to visit numerous pubs, I can see why she didn’t spoil the surprise. English pubs as we think of them back home are more mythological than real. They are not ideal places of social drinking that only exist in the misty setting of England. We have very similar places back home; with the defining difference being that pub-like places back home do not have the reputation that English pubs have here. Up until I was about ten, my dad was the manager of the Knights of Columbus Club and Restaurant. In this area there was a banqueting hall, dining room, and then a bar area with tables. The last area, the bar and eating area, was what I was immediately reminded of when I entered my first pub here, the Marlborough Arms. The atmospheres are very similar, as are the styles of service. The sense of familiarity in the pubs here was one I was used to seeing at the Knights of Columbus. There were the regulars and newcomers and a general sense of welcome to anyone who dropped by for a drink. It was a spot where people would gather for major sports events and celebrations. Pubs here were like taking step back into my childhood, but now I was able to be an active participant instead of a mere observer.
Not only did the pubs remind me of a place I regularly observed as a child, but it reminds me of other places back home. There are the pubs we try to have back home, like the Market Cross Pub in Carlisle. Even though I’ve only eaten there a few times, the atmosphere there is very reminiscent of the pubs here. Once again, you have the regulars, conversations flowing freely between tables, and the sense of the pub being a communal area for watching sports and other major events. Now, I cannot say if this is just an American style of mimicking something good created by the British, or if this is just a characteristic shared by the two cultures. What I do know though, is that I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences in the pubs of London if not only for the cultural experience but also the chance to expand my knowledge of ales and ciders. From this, I do not find English pubs to be intimidating or even that mysterious. I have observed similar drinking and eating places back home and even though I did not know it at the time prepared me to have a better grasp of the English pub.

Tags: Kimberly

There’s no place like home (but is home only one place?)

September 7th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Family. I’m not part of a particularly close one. This summer I was fortunate enough to stumble into Issi’s Place where I was adopted into an incredibly quirky and close-knit family of Hasidic Jews in Beechwood, Ohio. At Issi’s- a pizza parlor that keeps kosher- we got into each other’s way in the tiny kitchen, sweated through humid summer days next to the oven, stressed out over wrong orders, yelled at each other for taking too long to close the store, and then sat around for hours afterwards chatting the night away about Israel, Judaism, my life story, their life stories, life in general…It was truly fantastic. I’ve never before really had a home that I yearned for when traveling but the lack of Issi and my co-workers in my everyday life has definitely shown me just how difficult the feeling of homesickness can be to handle. With every kippah-wearing gentleman that passes here in England, I am reminded of the family I have back in a small pizza parlor in Ohio.

Enter the happy part of this story. Yesterday, a friend and I stumbled upon a concert of Klezmer Music that was happening in a beautiful area of Regent’s Park. Upwards of a hundred Hasidic Jews were gathered around a gazebo listening and dancing together. Instantly, a sense of nostalgia that I’ve never experienced before just hit me. In a corner of a park in London, England, a community much like the one I so love in Beechwood, Ohio collected in a preciously familiar fun-loving, care-giving way.

Now, the sentimental part of me can only go on so long before the liberal arts college student in me starts to analyze situations. Many of our readings on London’s history have addressed how immigrant communities are viewed in the city. A few of those readings have compared today’s “outcast” immigrant culture to yesterday’s “outcast” Jewish community. While this may not be the most politically correct of comparisons, it supports an optimism that London will accept the cultures that it seems to be ‘outcasting’ currently. If the same Jewish community that once was separated from the majority of the city can now celebrate a music form that has close ties to its culture in one of the most heavily visited parks in the city then clearly the city can accept what it once rejected so fully. Assuming this progression remains in place, today’s immigrant cultures that seem to be outcasts in London’s society would seem to have light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. That being said, the hope is that London doesn’t actually continue on in the same vein as it has been. While we should celebrate the fact that the city can and eventually usually does recognize and attempt to better its mistakes, we should actively push for a change to take place to make sure that such segregation never happens in the first place. Yes, it’s great that the city can apologize but wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t have to apologize at all? Wouldn’t it be best if the mistake wasn’t made in the first place?

By birth, I’m not a part of a Jewish community whether it be a secular or incredibly orthodox branch of the religion. This summer showed me that one does not need to be born into a family in order to be a part of it though. Like a family, a city cannot hose whom its members are. Maybe at one point in time this could have happened, ut- thankfully- we are past those days. We now live in an age in which cultures of all different roots are living in the same area. We need to do more than that though. We need to bump into each other, tell a few jokes with one another, and invite each other over for dinner. This may sound a little naïve or wishy-washy but I think the parallel is there. Issi accepted me into a community this summer that I could not have differed more from. He didn’t make me sit in a corner by myself and only speak when be spoken to. I went to the pizza parlor to do more than just work. An outsider both culturally and religiously, I was accepted despite our differences into their conversations and they into mine. London would do well to start doing the same.

Tags: Audrey

Park Etiquette

September 1st, 2009 · 1 Comment

This Summer at Prospect Park

Prospect Park

When I picture my summer at home, I see myself with Starbucks in hand, sitting on the dirt and grass of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I’m with friends, or my brother, or even alone. My ipod speakers are turned up next to me so I can hear over the music that other small groups around me play from various speakers. I smell hot dogs and other food being barbequed in the shade of the trees where the grass has been worn away. Every once in a while I look up from my book, or my friends, to dodge a rouge Frisbee, soccer ball, or running child. For the most part it’s a sort of low city hum surrounding me as I watch the various families eating and talking, the young women sun tanning, or the men playing various sports.

slideshow of photos from parks

But here in London, I’ve found my park experiences to be quite different. My first experience at a London park was with a friend outside of the Dickinson program. We were on a mission to find Harrods so that I could see the famous English department store. We did in fact find it. It was a window into the English equivalent of 5th Avenue, New York. I was surrounded by upscale, architecturally beautiful, storefronts and benches. This illustrated the main difference between the parks at home and the two parks I’ve visited in London: usage. Although both the major parks that I am familiar with in New York, Central Park and Prospect Park, are both on the edges of upscale neighborhoods, they also border more middle class neighborhoods as well. At home, the people who use the parks are primarily people who don’t have their own outdoor spaces. They use the park for family barbeques and get-togethers as well as the more traditional uses of sports activities, exercise, or even sun tanning.

While Hyde Park bordered a very upper class (which the English call middle class) neighborhood, just as most parks do, it seemed much more up kept. There we lots of small gardens, fountains, and monuments that were still in very good condition. Also, there were no people lying out on the grass—that I could see, at Hyde park. The people that were there, although they seemed to be of different ethnicities, all seemed to be of the same class. And not only was there no music playing from loud speakers, or people barbequing, there was very little shouting or noise at all. Now I must admit that Hyde Park is very very large, and I only explored one corner of it. But even in that corner what struck me the most was the quite. No music, loud children playing or laughing, or even the sound of large groups gathered. The people there either had outdoor space of their own for these uses or didn’t want to barbeque or ever do these outdoor things that I see at home. And this was not just limited to Hyde Park.

When we met for a class on Mrs. Dalloway in Regent’s Park, I was left with similar feelings. This park was also filled with fountains, monuments, and cleanliness. In fact, I got the feeling that our class of 27 students were the only 27 people talking in the whole park. Now don’t get me wrong, in both these parks people were present sitting on benches reading, walking their dogs, strolling holding hands, but never talking loudly, shouting, and absolutely not playing music. And although both Prospect Park and Central Park are also very large, I never seem to be able to find a completely private spot. Yet at Regent’s Park and Hyde Park there were a few times where no one besides our group was visible.

As I walked through these various parks, and made these comparisions in my mind, I began to ask myself why? Why were the parks I knew marked by noise, children, laughter, and the sense that people LIVED there? Why were these London parks most notably quiet with the beauty of something that is untouched and tiddy?

So far in my time here I have begun to notice that we Americans are often the loudest people around when we walk down the street, ride the tube, or sit in a restaurant. Perhaps this contributes to the idea of quiet London parks. It seems as though it is part of English culture, British nature, to be reserved and contained. No one screams or runs wild through the open grass. Instead, people read their books and seem to be sitting in nature, rather than monopolizing it with noise and music. Of course I’ll always feel more comfortable in a loud park where patches of grass have been sat on so much that it has worn away to dirt. A park where the tunnels smell of urine because of the homeless people who find shelter in them. A park where families who may not be able to afford a back yard can give their children a place to run free. But at the same time, there is something to be said of a place where people can simply exist with nature—not to say that London parks are an untamed forest, they are clearly man-made—unnoticed because they are so quiet there.

Tags: Megan

The British(?) Museum

August 31st, 2009 · 1 Comment

Anyone who has had a class with Professor Maggidis will know the Greek side of the Elgin Marble story quite well.  According to him, the elaborate carvings were forcifully taken from the sides of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who did not have a right to them.  The British Museum told a very different story. The current position of the Museum is that the Marbles were removed legally with the permission of the Ottoman authorities.  However, the Greeks were not asked their opinion.  Since the early 1980s, the Greek government has argued for the return of the Marbles to Athens.  The British Museum believes that they are “a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the world to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures.”  This same mission statement also applies to the other artifacts of the Museum.  However, “the Trustees’ view [the Elgin Marbles] are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.”  To them, the splitting of the Parthenon Marbles between six major museums of the world allow for different interpretations to be examined.  We are not so sure.  What gives the British Museum the right to possess the sculptures after the Ottoman Empire dissolved and the Greek government asked for them back?  Would they appreciate capstones from Stonehenge appearing in the Louvre or another major art museum of the world?  Where’s the line between exhibiting cultural artifacts and claiming them as your own?  You might ask us if we benefited from seeing the Elgin Marbles for free in the British Museum.  Of course we did. 

The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum - should they be here?

The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum - should they be here?

Continuing on our critical journey through the British Museum, we were struck by the assumption that every culture that the British encountered became part of the British cultural heritage.  This was especially apparent in parts of the former Empire.  This attitude was even expressed in places that dissolved from the Empire centuries ago.  For example, after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in London, Queen Victoria was talking to Black Elk (a Native American chieftain) and said “I wish that I had owned you people, for I would not carry you round as beasts to show the people.”  Although Queen Victoria probably meant well, this statement is preposterous!  We think she meant that she didn’t approve of the Native Americans parading around making a parody of their culture for the entertainment of others.  However, there seems to be a discrepency when looking at the colonies under Victoria’s control (India, Hong Kong, Africa, etc.). 

The British Museum has made us rethink who should have posession over a cultural artifact.  We believe that it’s a major grey area.  Does a British archeologist digging in France have the right to the objects found, or does the French government?  There are too many variables.  We enjoyed almost everything we saw at the Museum and it was a great learning experience, but we couldn’t help but feel an uneasy sense of awe in the rooms where the decoration was in Britain, but the structure was elsewhere in the world.

Tags: Bureucracy · Grace · Kelley · Museums