Sunday 21 June 2009

This equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures

Hannah Bolton, the British Museum's spokesperson does not have an enviable job these days. It is bad enough that she has to speak up in favour of the Portable Antiquity Scheme's disturbing "partnership" with portable antiquity collectors in the UK. Now the poor lady even has to side with James Cuno over universalism in collecting. The opening of the Parthenon Museum in Athens of course puts the BM in extremely bad light and they are going to have to do a lot more nifty PR work now to escape increasing international condemnation (for example, listen to David Gill waxing poetical on Looting Matters). Elena Becatoros (New Acropolis Museum seeks missing frieze return, Associated Press Sat. Jun. 20th 2009) quotes Culture Minister Antonis Samaras at the opening ceremony on Friday night as saying:

"We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts [...] We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th Century (B.C.) Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometers away [...] The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world [...] They were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum".
In reply Ms Bolton could only lamely reply:

"I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days [...] here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures".
What nonsense. Half of the marbles tells a very fragmentary story, when instead the "global citizens" can hop on a plane, train or coach to Athens to see the whole frieze telling the story it was meant to tell, and not the one modern collectors want to impose on it. The British Museum could equally "tell that story" about fifth century Athens with other "things" it has in its huge storerooms, including other items from Periclean Athens no doubt (vases, or any bits knocked or pried off other monuments they may have knocking about in the British public collections from over two centuries of Grand Tour collecting).

In any case, the only "story" these torn off, sawn off, dragged-away, overcleaned battered fragments of marble arranged around the inside walls of a cramped London museum gallery currently tell the viewer is a sad one. Only one of the greed of a small minority of British collectors and souvenir hunters in the past. The act is one that characterises the centuries before 'last minute' flights and cheap weekend breaks in almost any capital of Europe make the new museum accessible to all (to the same group of people at least that can afford the train fare to the British capital and a night in a London hotel, which is what the "Marbles" cost most people that see the "Elgin" marbles today).

OK, so let us hear this "this equally important, although different story " the British Museum feels it can tell us "all" about "about ancient Athens' place in world cultures" which London claims can be told better in a 1930s gallery tacked onto the side of the Greek rooms in London than a new museum in Athens right by the buildings concerned. I think we'd "all" like to hear it.


Marcus Preen said...

"I think they belong to all of us"

She is right of course. On a cerebral, heritagey level.

Metal detectorists say it as justification for digging and taking home. And hammer it home by saying they are "saving it for future generations". Collectors say it as well and hammer it home by saying they are providing a curation service for the rest of us. And the BM have said it and (until recently) have hammered it home by saying they are providing a superior curation service for the rest of us.

But none of them seems willing to discuss the less cerebral issue: they possess, against the wishes of most of the "all of us" to whom they admit the objects belong! If any of them had a dog called Bullseye it would all be much clearer.

However, let us see detectorists, collectors and

Paul Barford said...

Bullseye, the British Museum dog? They've still got a cat or two though, I'd hope.

Though who knows?

an update would be appreciated

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