Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Greece Lost it’s Marbles, and Wants Them Back

September 15th, 2010 · 4 Comments

Last summer, when I visited the Acropolis Museum in Greece with my family, I did not know much about the controversy surrounding the Elgin marbles.  It was probably the most remarkable museum that I have seen (including those in London), with a transparent glass floor at the bottom through which I could see the walls and streets of ancient Athens, revealed by an archeological dig.  As I moved up through the museum, I saw countless beautiful statues and painted vases.

However, the most strongly featured exhibit was that on the top floor: the pediments, metopes, and frieze from the Parthenon.  The collection was arranged in the exact size, shape and orientation of the Parthenon.  Pieces from each category of ornamentation  were conspicuously missing: full size models of them were interspersed with originals, mostly marked with plaques that said “BM,” for British museum  and a few that named other museums worldwide as the thieves in question.  One of Greece’s goals in building the new Acropolis Museum was to make its argument  for the returning of the marbles, and  the museum provided many not-so-subtle hints throughout its exhibitions that they should be returned, (such as an animated video in which the Elgin’s men, dressed in black, climb the Parthenon, pick up the statues and other artifacts, and walk away with them).  Indeed, it would add to the experience of seeing statues built to adorn the Parthenon, to see the Parthenon itself through the enormous glass windows that surround the top gallery in the Acropolis Museum.

Fast forward to the Parthenon exhibit in the British museum.  Here, there are no windows, and the only representation of the statues outside of the British museum’s collection is on a television screen in a side gallery.  Like at the Acropolis museum, the Parthenon display is set up in the shape of the Parthenon itself, with the frieze and the metopes along the perimeter, and the statues from the pediments at either end.  The statues (and especially the metopes, in which relief sculptures of battles with centaurs are carved),  are individually beautifully crafted and some are in excellent condition, probably both because Elgin removed the very best of the statues from the site of the Parthenon, and because some damage has come to the collection in Greece since.  Despite the high quality and obvious effort on the British Museum’s part to display the marbles so that visitors can picture what they would have looked like at the Parthenon, the effect is simply not the same.

The British Museum makes a pamphlet available to visitors that outlines their argument for keeping the marbles.  It explains that Elgin took the Marbles with the full permission of the Ottoman authorities in Greece at the time.  However, I see this as a case of interaction between two imperial forces, not between Elgin and “Greece” as the political and cultural entity that it is today.  However legal the transaction was considered by the few individuals involved, it is likely that the results would have been different if Elgin had negotiated with someone with a higher stake in Greece’s cultural identity than a foreign, occupying power.  The pamphlet also claims that the marbles should stay in London because they represent the cultural heritage of the entire western world, rather than only Greece.  However, what claim does Britain have to being the ideal place to display everything that makes up the cultural history of all of Europe?  If the debate centers around the well being of the statues themselves, it will go nowhere, because both the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum now have more than adequate facilities to preserve and display the Elgin Marbles.

This debate seems to have no logical conclusion.  However, after experiencing  seeing some of the statues (and through the plaster models, the entire set), at the location of their original home, I believe that Greece has a stronger cultural and historical claim.  I realize that beginning to return artifacts would not be in the British museum’s best interest.  However, returning some famous artifacts (and only to those countries that can care for them), would begin to send a message to the world that  Britain is willing to address the wrongs committed during its imperialist past.  It would probably also free up some exhibition space for some fantastic artifacts that are currently sitting in storage.

Tags: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized

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