Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Corbyn calls for return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens

Once again the Conservative media has its knickers in a twist following Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Greek newspaper Ta Nea in which he articulated his opinion on the future of the Parthenon Marbles.

It’s not the first time The Telegraph’s Nick Trend has mounted his high horse to proclaim that reunifying the Parthenon Marbles in Athens would begin an irrevocable process leading to the denuding of the British Museum and every other encyclopaedic museum like it.

He is wrong on so many counts, just as he was back in 2009 when he wrote to tell us that the Marbles “were not ‘seized’ by Lord Elgin,” but “were purchased from the Turkish authorities in control of the city at the time,” adding, “I think it is important that in this debate, accuracy is respected by all parties.” I can’t argue with that, but I can argue with Trend’s failure to comply with his own recommendation.

Accuracy is elusive where the removal of the Marbles is concerned. But to suggest that hacking and sawing so many masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture from the building for which they were designed (and disfiguring and destroying so many of them in doing so) is part of a mere process of “purchase” is pretty extraordinary, as most archaeologists and art historians would surely agree.

Once again we’re hearing the groaning old argument that reunification would open the notional floodgates leading to the wholesale emptying out of the British Museum and other universal museums like it. Trend goes further, suggesting even that the British Museum is “a far more important and influential cultural construct than the Parthenon.” Wow.

Few would disagree that the British Museum is an important and influential cultural construct, but to assert that it is more important and influential than the Parthenon is ridiculous. It calls to mind Donald Trump’s braggadocio, invoking his country’s menacing military-industrial complex whenever he addresses smaller nations ("My nuclear button is bigger and more powerful than yours".) 

It also wilfully overlooks the nationalistic symbolic charge exerted by the British Museum, which is not always welcomed by other cultures. Some see Western universal museums as “terrifying places with insati􏰀able appe􏰀tites for works of art” and redolent of a dark period in their nation’s history (Singh, K. ‘Universal Museums: The View From Below’ in Prott, L.V. Witnesses to History, UNESCO Publishing, 2009, p125.) 

Building bridges
This is particularly dismaying at a moment when the UK needs to be building bridges with its European neighbours rather than alienating them through anachronistic neo-imperialist rhetoric. We all know that the British Museum is an active lender and designer of influential blockbuster touring exhibitions. That’s arguably a positive thing. But that process would likely be strengthened and enhanced by showing the world that it was also capable of solving one of the most intractable issues in world heritage. Then we could all move forward. 

The UK is no longer the thought-leader in international relations that it used to be. Its vast, overweening empire is long gone (hooray to that), its global influence is shrinking by the week and Brexit looks likely to accelerate that diminution. Power is inexorably shifting from West to East, so to speak. 

Instead of tightening its grip on the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum ought to be using them to show Britain is now magnanimous in its outreach, and able to identify the manifold benefits accruing from cultural diplomacy. That’s another form of power. Soft power. Cultural power. An antidote to post-colonial tristesse.

“Bravo, Jeremy Corbyn,” many are saying, for it is indeed a breath of fresh air to hear a leading politician speaking out on this matter. But Corbyn made a cardinal error in his interview with the Greek media. By connecting the Marbles issue with “anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past,” he opened himself — and the wider cause — to a sucker-punch from the floodgates crowd — “You’d be emptying our museums!” 

A unique case
The Parthenon Marbles are unlike any other heritage issue. They ought not to be bundled in with the Benin brasses, the Assyrian winged lions, the Pergamum Altar, the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone, and all the other disputed objects. Every case is different and should be taken on its own merits. To argue for the return of the Marbles is not to argue that everything else should be returned.

Parthenon Galleries, New Acropolis Museum, Athens
Nor should the British Museum be promoting the idea that the Parthenon Marbles can only be understood when viewed adjacent to objects from other periods and cultures. 

That argument is fallacious and educationally unhelpful. As any trip to the British Museum will immediately make clear, few visitors are able to perceive any meaningful connection between the assembled objects. Most people seem to wander around in a daze, straining between selfies to make sense of the arcane juxtapositions. 

As Eugenio Donato has observed: 

“The set of objects the Museum displays is sustained only by the fiction that they somehow constitute a coherent representational universe. […] Such a fiction is the result of an uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that is to say, the spatial juxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world.  Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but ‘bric-a-brac,’ a heap of meaningless and valueless fragments of objects which are incapable of substituting themselves either metonymically for the original objects or metaphorically for their representations.” (Donato, E. ‘The Museum’s Furnace: Notes Towards a Contextual Reading of Bouvard and Pécuchet’ in Harare, J.V. (Ed. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Methuen, 1980 [1979[, p223.) 

The Parthenon sculptures are architectural objects that ought not to be conceptually divorced from their original function on the Parthenon. Naturally, they could never be returned to the building itself. Nobody, not even the Greeks, has ever argued for that. But the Parthenon Galleries in the New Acropolis Museum is surely the place where they would speak most eloquently of ancient Athenian culture and belief. 

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