Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A viral embarrassment

I realise there is a serious of risk of Marbles-fatigue spreading like swine-flu if I continue to blog away on this topic to the exclusion of all else, but I can't resist noting an interesting contrast between two recent news items.

Speaking of viral phenomena, it was instructive to see that The Guardian's poll on the Parthenon Marbles attracted almost as much attention as the paper's coverage of the demise of Michael Jackson.

And how interesting that British Museum director Neil MacGregor now seems unable to announce a single new initiative for his museum, launch any fresh innovation, or indeed do anything meaningful in the world without feeling the need to accompany every utterance with a defence of his beleaguered institution's position over the Parthenon Marbles. How long is he prepared to continue this embarrassing charade?

MacGregor has just joined forces with Tate supremo Nicholas Serota to tell the world that the future of museums lies on the internet. Hold on, let me write that down in case I forget. I thought the future was going to be somewhere else.

"The challenge is, to what extent do we remain authors," said Serota, "and in what sense do we become publishers providing a platform for international conversations?" The British Museum would do well to respond to that question by engaging with the Greeks in a conversation about the future of the Parthenon Marbles without attaching obstructive preconditions.

"In the past," says Serota, "there has been an imperfect communication between visitors and curators. The possibility for a greater level of communication between curators and visitors is the challenge now. There will be a big shaking-out — a discrepancy will arise between those institutions that grasp these opportunities and those that do not." But there will never be a big shaking-out while a backward-looking British Museum-style Establishment rearguard impedes progress.

Serota may have been referring to the British Museum's abject failure to listen to the wishes of its public.

Neil MacGregor says the Parthenon marbles issue is "yesterday's question." But clearly it's not. The Guardian poll reveals that it's very much today's question and will be tomorrow's question too, and indeed will still be the question on everyone's lips the day after that and the day after that and into next year and throughout the next decade until the British Museum does the right thing as advised by 94% of respondents to the Guardian poll and sends the Marbles back.

"The Greek government has a clear position that the [Marbles'] removal [from the Parthenon] was illegal and therefore this conversation cannot happen," said MacGregor in a clear contradiction of his colleague Nick Serota's earlier advice to provide a platform for international conversations. How undignified and contradictory does all this look?

Conversations between encyclopedic museums, their public and their international partners won't happen until the museums pull themselves out of an anachronistic mindset, put aside petty questions of ownership and legality and other constraining conditions, and be generous in their approach to cultural diplomacy.

Serota is obviously right that if museums learn how to harness internet communications technology in creative ways they could ultimately become more active publishers and broadcasters. Such initiatives will surely open up new revenue-generating opportunities but that will only further inflame those nations who believe their material culture was unfairly appropriated during the era of collecting.

Before these big internet ideas are likely to work there are even bigger issues that will need to be addressed that bear on the sharing and return of cultural objects. The Marbles issue won't go away.

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