Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Will we ever have a conversation about the Parthenon Marbles that is free of controversy?
In its online coverage of the planned June opening of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens (left), Canada's CBC News offered an abrupt summary of the Parthenon Marbles debate to date. It closed with the paragraph: "The Parthenon, a fifth-century temple dedicated to the god Athena, had its roof blown off in a 17th-century explosion, when it was used by the Ottomans for munitions storage. The marbles taken by Elgin were fragments left after the blast."
Hmm. "Fragments left after the blast" makes it sound as if the temple sculptures now in the British Museum were lying scattered on the ground waiting for a visionary antiquarian to sweep them up and spirit them heroically back to London for posterity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Then again, I suppose if CBC had given the more accurate account — "The marbles taken by Elgin were hacked from the building using crude saws" — the British Museum and other 'cultural property retentionists' would have seen this as equally incendiary.
Will the June opening of the New Acropolis Museum deliver a breakthrough in this age-old stand-off? The lines currently being rehearsed by BM director Neil MacGregor suggest not. A couple of nights ago he appeared for just a few seconds in a BBC news item about the British Museum's current Shah Abbas exhibition devoted to the treasures of ancient Iran.
The exhibition, MacGregor mumbled, enables us to have a "conversation" about ancient Persia. In yet another subtle genuflection towards the 'Universal Museum', he went on to insist that the British Museum is the only place on earth where such "conversations" can be had, thereby exposing the extent of his self-delusion. Increasingly, whatever MacGregor is talking about, one senses that he's really talking about the Parthenon Marbles.
I cannot remember a time when the Parthenon Marbles were discussed in any terms other than as a cultural controversy. Sure, archaeologists and classicists will convene from time to time to chew over the academic aspects of the Parthenon and its architecture. But in the public sphere the architectural significance of these venerable ancient objects has become almost entirely occluded by an unseemly diplomatic stand-off.
The British Museum now has the first real opportunity to break that impasse by acknowledging that the Greeks have finally created in the New Acropolis Museum a superb and entirely appropriate environment in which to unite the existing fragments. This would enable everyone to see the Marbles for what they are rather than for what they have become. Moreover, it would reveal the British Museum as a visionary, enlightened, and truly 'Universal' museum that places objects and their appreciation above petty considerations of legal title.
But even were Mr MacGregor and his trustees to refuse to return the Marbles (which remains the most predictable outcome), I for one firmly believe that once the New Acropolis Museum finally opens on June 20, the only relevant conversations about the history and continuing cultural significance of the Parthenon Marbles will be those that take place in Athens where their architectural significance once again becomes abundantly clear.
As for the British Museum, as long as it refuses to return the Marbles, any 'conversations' it seeks to preside over will increasingly be seen as parochial, anachronistic and irrelevant.