Tuesday 30 June 2009

Controversy over Marbles "Largely a Matter of Greek Politics"

Having built this new museum for the Elgin Marbles, the Greeks have managed to rustle up one or two British journalists credulous or naïve enough to write articles calling for their return. But if anyone thinks the building is ever going to house anything other than the plaster casts that are on display there
now, they are hopelessly out of touch with reality. There is virtually no chance that the director or trustees of the British Museum, now or in the future, will comply with this outlandish demand.

Thus writes the Telegraph's outspoken art critic Richard Dorment. "The Greeks should erect a statue of Lord Elgin near the Parthenon to express their nation's gratitude to him for saving the Marbles", he says "instead of whining about events that happened more than two centuries ago, perhaps the Greek ambassador should formally thank Britain for displaying the marbles in those beautiful galleries at the British Museum".

He ends predictably: "Let the new museum stand as a monument to the futility of cultural nationalism — in this case trying to claim back something that by now belongs to the whole world". [Well, the British Museum at any rate, and of course the Torygraph never expresses any nationalistic sentiments of its own does it?].

The Parthenon marbles are a case which shows that any "antiquity" can be made "portable" if you cut it into suitably sized pieces. Like all "portable antiquities", they do not make full sense when individual "displayable" bits are taken out of the context of the rest of the assemblage. The overused term "cultural nationalism" does not seem to have much sense here. In fact, one might reflect that it does not ever have much sense when applied to the removal of material from a country when it is self-evident that this is reducing to a significant degree the size and scope of the resource of such material available for study, collection and display within that country. Is trying to reduce or even reverse the process in itself "nationalism"? James Cuno and no-questions-asked collectors would prefer people to think it was, I wonder whether they could give us a more precise definition of what they mean by the use of the term. Probably not.



The New Acropolis Museum seems to be making a lot of people dizzy and unable to follow facts or the logic of the relations between Britain and Greece regarding the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Surely, it is the height of hypocrisy for a British newspaper to accuse the Greeks of nationalism.(For a discussion on this baseless accusation, see K. Opoku, “Can Nationalism be sold as Internationalism via the British Museum?” http://www.modernghana.com )
It is sad that respectable British newspapers are producing such partial and unhelpful articles on this matter. Even more shocking is the failure of the British Establishment and the British Museum to attend the opening of the new museum. What kind of impression do they hope to make?


Unknown said...

Is the following "cultural nationalism" ? Housing all the remains of the Parthenon frieze under a single roof, in a manner that helps the viewer clearly understand its function and impact, close to its original context, along with the votive and architectural fiinds from the shrine where the temple stood, as part of a museum that explores the history of the site but also the layered urban story of part of the area. My answer that is this is not cultural nationalism, but good archaeological practice.

On the other hand, is this "cultural nationalism" ? Keeping the Parthenon frieze as one item among many, in an institution that claims to encompass "world history" and universality, but is named after one nation state and is garnished with artefacts grabbed (legally or not, but always with a curious sense of entitlement) from the world at the time of the ascendance and power of that nation-state. My answer is that this is cultural nationalism, in the not very self-aware form of nostalgia for the grandeur embodied by the voracious collecting of the imperial nation-state at the hight of its economic and military success, and by the peculiar convenience of having the spoils of the world easily accessible to the stroller in the imperial capital. That this possessive collector's nostalgia is hidden under claims to "Enlightenment universality" does not make it less obvious (come, examine and compare the wonders of "world culture"— all of which happens to be in my museum)— except to the collector.

Paul Barford said...

"an institution that claims to encompass "world history" and universality, but is named after one nation state"

and a relatively new one at that...

Unknown said...

heh heh.

Keep up the good work Paul. I really like this blog, and David Gill's

J. Ma

Paul Barford said...

Thanks, nice to hear from somebody who likes it, I mostly tend to hear from the other lot...

Unknown said...

Dr Opoku's paper, I think, is also here:


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