Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Walking through the Sculptures

September 13, 2009 · 4 Comments

My trip to the British Museum was determined by one goal, to see the Parthenon Gallery and then move onto the rest of the Ancient World exhibitions. This goal formed during my junior year of high school when I was taking an AP Art History course. When we began the section on Greek Art and Architecture a main point of our discussion sessions focused on the British Museum’s collections, particularly the Parthenon Collection. I remember vividly the heated debates we had concerning the right of the British Museum to keep the statues taken from the Parthenon. My teacher’s advice on the subject though was to withhold on our final judgment until we could actually view the Parthenon Gallery at the British Museum. So this had me more than just a bit excited to see this exhibition and what else the museum had to offer.
As I entered the Parthenon Gallery, I was struck by the beauty of the friezes, metopes and pediments. The way they are arranged is to show them as they would have appeared on the Parthenon. The metopes and friezes are organized into their appropriate sections and the pieces placed in their original order. It is a unique opportunity to see temple friezes, metopes and pediments from the ground as they were meant to be seen. Yet there is equal beauty in being able to walk along these elements of an ancient temple and being able to view their details at eye level. This exhibition is simple in how it presents the sculptures, but it is the most effective way for the viewers to appreciate the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures. I found myself very appreciative of the gallery and was able to look past the controversy concerning the rights of the British Museum to the ownership of the sculptures.
The question that the museum poses in the pamphlet it printed in response to the controversy is one of not ownership but one concerning the protection and display of the sculptures. It states that the Parthenon was being destroyed at the time when the sculptures were taken by Lord Elgin. It was for preservation of the sculptures that they remained with the British Museum. Moreover, they are part of a collection on the Ancient World, which Greece and the Parthenon were very much part of. So it seems to me, that these sculptures are preserved, protected and appropriately displayed within the British Museum. It is only this preservation, protection, and respectful presentation that persuades people to support the British Museum’s right to keep the statues. Also, there are sculptures from the Parthenon in Greece, at the new Acropolis Museum. If there were no sculptures left to preserve and present in Greece, then my opinion would be different, but since there is preservation and appropriate presentation of them here in London it seems better for them to remain.

Categories: Kimberly
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4 responses so far ↓

  •   Tom Flynn // Sep 15th 2009 at 05:42

    Dear Kimberley,
    It was great to read of your experience at the British Museum and I’m delighted that you found the trip enjoyable and enlightening. I note with interest your reference to your teacher’s advice to withhold judgement about the rights and wrongs of the British Museum holding onto the Marbles until you had viewed the Parthenon Galleries. However, it does seem a shame that having seen them you came away with the view that they were displayed “as they would have appeared on the Parthenon” and that the Duveen Galleries location is “the most effective way for the viewers to appreciate the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures.” With the greatest respect, those are easy assumptions to make, but I would urge you to withhold your judgement a little longer, indeed until you have visited the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. Only in Athens can the sculptures be viewed in anything like an accurate configuration relative to the Parthenon.

    It is understandable that the British Museum would seek to deflect attention from the question of ‘ownership’ towards issues of protection and conservation, but sadly the British Museum can only be found wanting on all those points. It has no legitimate or ethical right to retain the Marbles, and nor has it looked after them properly. Moreover it continues to display them in a misleading and profoundly inappropriate context.

    I am confident that once you have visited the new Acropolis Museum in Athens you will look rather differently upon the question of the Marbles’ rightful home. In the meantime, I urge you to withhold judgement until you have seen both sides of the argument, preferably with the benefit of glorious Greek sunshine to illuminate the ethics of the issue.

    Kind regards and best wishes,

    Dr Tom Flynn
    British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles

  •   Professor Anthony Snodgrass // Sep 15th 2009 at 10:41

    Dear Kimberly,
    I would only say that your teacher’s excellent advice should have gone on to say: “Withhold judgment until you see the displays, both in the British Museum and in the New Acropolis Museum” (which you’ve clearly heard about).
    The point is that the display in London does not show the sculptures as they would have appeared on the Parthenon: they are inside out, and this fault is put right in the Athens display. The other points are mostly matters of conjecture or of opinion, but this is one of fact.

    Best wishes

    Professor Anthony Snodgrass
    Fellow of the British Academy
    Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge
    Chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles

  •   Marlen Taffarello // Sep 15th 2009 at 10:51

    Hello Kimberely
    If you can make time to go to Athens to see the Acropolis and the new musuem, it would be good to hear what you think. If it helps there are lots of low cost carriers and charters but from your part of the world Aegean fly from Stansted three times a day direct to Athens and the airfares are extremely reasonable especially if you book on line and as early as you can. Budget accommodation is equally plentiful and Athens has a superb underground that starts from the airport as an overground train and takes you straight into the centre and the Acropolis.
    As my colleagues have said all the serious bits…. all I can add is that an Athens visit is a must.

  •   kimberlyspackman // Sep 15th 2009 at 18:27

    Thank you all for the advice. Looking back, my teacher did not mention visiting the Parthenon in respect to deciding on the appropriateness of the British Museum’s display. Now after reading your comments, I regret that omission. I have seen the sculptures within the British Museum, but have nothing to compare them to in respect to their natural setting. Moreover, I was unaware that the display in the British Museum has the sculptures on display inside out. If I had known this at the time of writing this post, I would have been harsher on the exhibition. I feel that I made a mistake by not considering the fact that I should visit the New Acropolis Museum as well as the Parthenon before finally deciding on where these beautiful sculptures would best be displayed and viewed.

    If it is not a bother, I noticed that two of you are members of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and was wondering what viewpoint the Committee has on the sculptures. Particularly, where should the unification of the Parthenon Marbles occur and what actions would be taken to achieve this? I attempted to find the answer to this question through a web search, but unfortunately could not turn up anything definitive.

    Once again, thank you for the advice. I have to say that this has pushed a trip to Athens up on my travel list for this coming year. I look forward to the opportunity to visit the New Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon itself and reevaluating my judgment on the the Parthenon Marbles and where they may be best preserved and displayed.

    Best wishes,
    Kimberly Spackman

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