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The British Museum: Just do it
by Asa Butcher
2009-05-05 08:01:30
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In the very first issue of Ovi magazine I wrote a letter to Thanos in our now-defunct “Dear ...” column asking about the situation regarding the Parthenon Marbles, commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles. For those unfamiliar with the situation allow me to clarify that beginning in 1801 Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, ordered the marble panels and other object d’art from buildings on the Athenian Acropolis, in order to protect them from the invading “uncultured” Turks.

Luckily he signed a document promising to return them, but then suddenly sold them to the British Government in 1816 - even at the time, many MPs and observers questioned this decision but, since 1939, the Marbles have been on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery of the British Museum in London and are still one of the major attractions of the institution – well, they are stunning and dripping with history... Greek history.

However, there has been a long campaign by many groups, spear-headed by the Greek Government, that want the Marbles back because they feel they rightfully belong to Greece. A state-of-the-art museum has been built in the shadow of the Acropolis that is ready to reunite all the pieces of one of Greece's greatest archaeological achievements. It is slightly amusing to read on the British Museumn website that the Marbles are currently located in six other countries besides Greece and the UK, as if that excuses their possession.

The British Museum is the primary focus of the campaign because they hold the largest number of pieces, yet stubbornly remain against their return for a number of different reasons, none of which sit true in this writer's humble opinion. On the British Museum's Parthenon Marbles' web page they have a statement that reads:

The British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon Sculptures are integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement. Here Greece’s cultural links with the other great civilizations of the ancient world, especially Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Rome, can be clearly seen, and the vital contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements in Europe, Asia, and Africa can be followed and understood. The current division of the surviving sculptures between museums in eight countries, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture. This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that gives maximum public benefit for the world at large and affirms the universal nature of the Greek legacy.

I guess that means the British Museum should be happy to share some of the ancient artefacts found from Ancient Britain with the National Museum of Greece, perhaps a stone or two from Stonehenge would help tell the story of Britain's contribution to the civilised world.

Take a look at the Wikipedia page for the Marbles and you will find a bullet point list of the rationale behind the British Museum keeping the them:

  • the maintenance of a single worldwide-oriented cultural collection, all viewable in one location, thereby serving as a world heritage centre. The British museum is a creative and living achievement of the Enlightenment, in contrast to Parthenon which is a ruin that cannot be restored.

As said before, the Marbles aren't being returned to the Parthenon, but a multi-million euro specially designed complex that would ensure the safety of the Marbles for future generations, whereas the British Museum has seen them damaged in all manner of ways from vandals to ill-advised cleaning attempts.

  • the fact that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world's great museums;

So what? If somebody stole a family heirloom decades ago, would you want it back today?

  • the saving of the marbles from what would have been, or would be, pollution and other damage if relocated back to Athens;

See my earlier response.

  • More than half the original marbles are lost and therefore return of the Elgin Marbles would not complete the collection in Greece;

What has that got to do with anything? Whether it is one Marble or 100, it isn't a valid argument.

  • a legal position that the museum is banned by charter from returning any part of its collection.

Good point! We almost forgot that one... it is a tragedy that laws, rules and charters cannot be changed... hang on... they can. Just do it.

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Alan2009-05-05 08:53:39
Greece must be careful; London might claim the Olympics were British!

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-05 09:54:51
The bitter irony in all of this is that British imperialism too is slowly becoming something for a museum. When culture is relegated to a museum it means it is dead or close to it; something about which to feel nostalgic. Ah the past glories distracting us from the task at hand! How about imitating the virtues of the ancients? Any takers?

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-06 02:30:35
"the fact that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world's great museums"
No, museums' greatness would just be... spread! Or back to its origins...

I have an Italian friend who studies Archeology - he says that the US, Britain or Germany produce the best Archeologists in the world simply because they have a very easy access to almost all the objects of study that they want to explore and do research about, and that improves also their courses' curriculums, not because they have especially brilliant minds. According to him, "rich countries stole half of the world's heritage and Italian students can't even study directly much of their own country's heritage". Cibo for thought.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-06 12:53:40
Venice loses a thousand inhabitant a year. They seem to prefer the polluting ugliness of the industrial centers nearby (Mestre and Marghera) In 100 years it will indeed be a ghost of a town for tourists, or in other words a museum and the Germans and British archeologists can came down and together with the gambling at the Lido nearby they can do their research of a proud city independent for a thousand years and now a corpse. Food for thought for your Italian friend! I wonder if he is Venetian.

Ale xandra Pereira2009-05-06 19:32:17
Not Venetian nor responsible for any idiotic urbanization policies carried out in Venice. Little do they have to do with the topic discussed above anyway.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-06 23:47:44
Point wholly missed and yet quite simple: when a city becomes an archeological museum it is a dead city, period. One such is Pompei. It remains interesting as a museum but it is a dead city. That point is quite relevant to what is discussed in the above article about past glories that serve to cover up present ignominies.

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