Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London Museums: The Art of Unapologetically Stealing Stuff

September 14, 2009 · 3 Comments

After all of this time spent in museums in London, especially the British Museum, I find myself asking just one question: How are they still allowed to keep this kind of stuff? I mean, I can’t exactly speak for the Greek government, but I imagine that they would want the sculptures taken from likely the most important structure in Ancient Greek history back. Oh wait, Yes I Can. Despite the fact that England’s age of Imperialism is most certainly gone and past, it is peculiar and almost funny to see that certain citizens of Britain are still holding to the imperialist mentality decades after their actual country gave it up.

In 1801, the Earl of Elgin decided that in order to prevent pieces of the Parthenon from being burned to obtain lime, he was going to excavate pieces of the temple and its sculptures to put under his protection. The only problem is that in order to protect them, he took them out of the country and sold them to the British Museum. Masked under the cause of protecting cultural artifacts, it is apparent today that it was nothing more than a trophy to liberate from Greece and its people. In fact today the term elginism means the practice of plundering artifacts from their original setting. So why is it that despite Greece’s continuous calling for the return of these artifacts that are rightfully theirs, England seems reluctant to give them up?

The answer seems to lie with everyone’s favorite blog topic: identity. There are some opinions that state that as a center of world heritage, Parthenon sculptures are better off in the British Museum that in the actual Parthenon. This probably would have been a valid argument at around the time that the marbles were actually stolen, but is laughable today. Playing the role of cultural center of the world, British supporters insinuate that Greece is in some sort of corner of the planet that doesn’t see anyone other than its inhabitants. This is the 21st century. There are few people who live in Europe who cannot in a moment’s notice hop on a plane and be in Greece within a 24 hour period. The truth behind the matter is that there are those in Britain (mostly likely A.N. Wilson is one of them) that yearn for the time that their country moved and shook the very foundations of the planet with its actions, enabling to go into countries and plunder what they pleased. Instead, they live in a country whose capital city is kept afloat by the tourist dollars of the very people that they ruled not a few hundred years ago. Whether legal at the time or not, it is long overdue for the marbles to be returned and for some individuals to live in the present, regardless of whether they work in museums.

Categories: Paul
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 15th 2009 at 04:07

    I’m not sure that most Europeans can just hop a plane to Greece. Most are privileged enough to have that disposable income. That also suggests the the BM’s argument is also invalid, because the world can’t travel to London either. Your other point is spot on. In a country that has lost its glorious place in the world where the sun never set on its empire, Britain is trying to keep itself relevant. It does so through promoting its culture and propping up the banking industry of the city and Canary Wharf. An empire in decline is a dangerous thing, both physically and psychologically. We saw the violence as the empire collapsed, and now we are seeing the psychic shock of no longer being so “great.” Look at Russia. We have a similar thing. The Cold War power now flexes its muscle whenever possible so that it remains relevant in international politics.

  •   Paul // Sep 15th 2009 at 04:31

    That’s a very good point Professor, but I think my point was to say international travel is simply more possible, especially domestic Europe travel. Of course there are many working-class people that can’t necessarily just hop on a plane for holiday, but the percentage of people that can is increasing (Recession aside). Compared to the United States, many European countries have much more favorable laws concerning required days of paid vacation and even unpaid. Combine that with the fact that flights, trains, and even buses across Europe can be found for fairly cheap when compared to US domestic travel. The result is that these world cultural centers are no longer necessary, because the idea of the unreachable foreign land no longer exists.

    The idea of a world cultural center actually reminds me of one of our readings of the Indian Travelogues, from both perspectives. On the one hand you had British throwing a fair and exhibiting the mysterious country of India, but on the other hand in the Indian Travelogues you had the writers doing the same thing only with England. Both romantascized the aspect of the foreign “other” in order for their own commercial gain.

  •   Chris // Sep 16th 2009 at 09:17

    Ease of travelling to Greece is an interesting point but not the most important one. The problem is that after the 2nd World War the UK, France and other countries were forced by bankruptcy to decolonise politically: but they have all tried to remain cultural imperialists by keeping centuries of looted art in their museums. The pressure is now building up, on a global scale, to send back this loot – especially where cultural objects, like the marbles, are split down the middle in separate museums. These museums invent self-serving excuses for keeping them. But few believe they can keep up this patronising hypocrisy much longer.

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