Wednesday, July 1, 2009

British Museum on the back foot over Parthenon Marbles

If the image, left, had appeared in Hello! magazine, the headline might have read: "Lord Elgin invites us into his beautiful stately home to look at the fragments of the classical past amassed by his forebear Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin". Elgin's desecration of the Parthenon left him seriously impoverished but clearly the £35,000 he received from the British Government in exchange for the Parthenon Marbles was enough to secure a more than comfortable future for his ancestors.

I found this image on a Greek television website alongside an interview with the present Lord Elgin. Sadly the video was dubbed into Greek so I have no idea whether his lordship was accepting his family's responsibility for that heinous crime against the classical heritage or justifying it as cultural rescue. No prizes for guessing...

There's been a blizzard of news and opinion pieces on the Marbles issue in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, they have veered from the downright stupid, such as Richard Dorment's hysterical rant in the Daily Telegraph (here), to more balanced and insightful pieces such as the article by Helena Smith in yesterday's Guardian.

Smith reports that the Greeks, having played the patient supplicant for decades, may now be ready to "take the gloves off" in order to secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. "We are no longer willing to play the nice guys," a senior member of the culture ministry told The Guardian. "The British Museum has lost the argument. It is now on the defensive. In a year's time, I can assure you, it will want to give the marbles back."

The opening of the marvellous New Acropolis Museum to universal applause has clearly strengthened Greece's will. It has also exposed the British Museum to fresh ridicule, revealing it as out of step with current thinking on museums and cultural property and hopelessly out of touch with public opinion.

If you're looking for evidence that the British Museum is on the defensive on this issue, take a trip to the Duveen Galleries. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the sweltering heat of that ugly room (right) where Elgin's trophies of conquest are so clumsily arrayed.

It's clear from the plethora of new information panels running around the walls of the adjoining rooms that the British Museum is straining to justify its retention of the Marbles in the face of overwhelming public opinion that wants them returned.

Needless to say, in the BM's narrative, Elgin is framed as a hero rather than the cultural vandal that he was. The fact that the Marbles that remained in Athens (about half of the total) are in better condition than those in London demolishes the British Museum's claim that Elgin rescued those he took. It also makes a mockery of the British Museum's claim to have protected those in its care. London scrubbed them with wire wool in a misguided attempt to make them white, while Athens used up-to-the-minute laser technology to sensitively restore theirs.

We will never know how much damage was done by Elgin's cronies in sawing the sculptures off the building. Some pieces crashed to the ground when the winches gave way. But whenever the British Museum refers to any visible damage on the sculptures in London, it is always attributed to Morosini's bombardment of the building in 1687, ignoring Elgin's depredations. However it is clear from eighteenth-century drawings from casts that after the 1687 explosion many of the sculptures were in better condition than after Elgin's goons had finished cutting them up.

I love visiting the Marbles in London, but I would love visiting them far more if they were in Athens. This is because, unlike Ian Jenkins, who is the curator of the Marbles at the British Museum, I appreciate their architectural significance. Like many of his forebears, Mr Jenkins is clearly uninterested in this aspect of their significance or he would by now have done something to redress their bizarre configuration in the Duveen Galleries. Immured in this gloomy sepulchre, their relationship to the building for which they were designed is almost impossible to grasp.

Jenkins was interviewed on NPR radio about the Marbles. He began with the astonishing statement, "We regard Elgin as being a conservator. No Elgin, no Marbles." Who is this "we" to whom he refers? That a modern museum curator could be so blind to the available evidence defies belief. But whether or not Elgin ""saved" them, this is no justification for retaining them.

Jenkins also insists, quite wrongly, that the aspiration to "reunification" is flawed since it is predicated on the assumption that if they were brought together they would make a whole. This is another deliberate attempt to misrepresent a realistic and archaeologically-informed approach to reunification. Everyone is aware that we can never make the Parthenon whole again. But we could make it more whole than it is now.

Jenkins says that for a loan to be agreed, Greece must acknowledge Britain's legal ownership of the Marbles. Again, who is he speaking for here? In fact, the British people demand no such thing from the Greeks. How do we know this? A recent Guardian poll offered further incontrovertible evidence that the large majority of the public (94.8%) want to see the Marbles returned. It was not scientific — internet polls rarely are — but it was broadly in line with most other public opinion polls on this topic.

The British Museum's last remaining line of argument is that only in London can the Marbles be understood within the context of other cultures. The visitor to the British Museum can compare the Greek achievement with that of the Persians, or of ancient Mesopotamia, and so on. This ideal visitor, endowed with a sufficiently sophisticated visual awareness to grasp the finer nuances of formal stylistic development across cultures, is a myth propagated by museum curators out of touch with their audience.

In fact, the evidence suggests that such art historical subtleties are beyond the average visitor. As Louvre director Henri Loyrette told a conference at the British Museum, "Most of our displays mean nothing to people. Indeed, a survey of Louvre visitors revealed that 67 percent of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period." (The Guardian, 27th November, 2003).

Just as MPs were recently exposed for holding the electorate in contempt over expenses, so too the British Museum is now in danger of losing the trust of its public. Bonnie Greer, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, insists that the Marbles must remain in Britain. Ms Greer, look at the polls. You do not speak for me, nor, it seems, for the majority of the British people to whom you owe a duty of care.

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