Monday, 1 April 2019

Britain Taking Back Control in the British Museum

'Creative Act',British Marbles restored under Brexit

Recently the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer) has provoked controversy by suggesting the removal of the Parthenon marbles from Greece in the 19th century could be seen as “a creative act” (Mark Brown, British Museum chief: taking the Parthenon marbles was 'creative' Guardian Mon 28 Jan 2019). The British Museum, founded in 1753, has from the outset seen itself as on the one hand a uniquely British institution and on the other as a museum of the world. The collection tells the stories of cultures across the world to the present. It was with this in mind that the new Aaron Banks Gallery was opened to the public today after its launch at a private ceremony on 29th March 2019, intended to mark the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and give the British museum-going public what it wants, astonishment, entertainment and eye-catching and colourful display. This new gallery is intended to use the national collections to highlight, for a modern audience, the 'enlightened creativity inherent in British culture', this being one of the few areas where the post-Brexit UK can 'take back control'.

The words 'Back in Control' figure prominently in the new neon lettering set on the stark Portland stone wall above the gallery entrance. Visible through the glass doors even from the entrance, on the opposite wall is a new display of a selection of Britain's own Parthenon marbles with their colouring newly 'restored' by go-it-alone British knowhow with some of the 350 mln that Brexit has released to the budget for culture and other social needs. The display challenges old notions of the whiteness of classical marble sculpture, "they were painted" says historian Boris Johnson, "everybody knows that". Fischer said the new display British Museum offered a different way of interacting with the marbles, “posing different questions because the objects are placed in a new context”. He added: “We should appreciate this opportunity". Fischer rejected the idea that Greece was the legitimate owner of the marbles. “The objects in the collection of the British Museum are owned by the museum’s commissioners,” he said, and asserted British exclusive rights to use them as they see fit, regardless of so-called 'European norms' and demands. George Vardas, the secretary of the International Association for Reunification of Parthenon Sculptures, has commented, he called the British Museum's treatment of these objects in its care as  “astonishing historical revisionism and arrogance”, and added: “The imperial condescension of the British Museum knows no bounds.” 

Fischer (born in Germany) countered this by pointing out that their possession was sanctioned by tradition: "There was classical sculpture on display in the public spaces of Britain in cultural centres such as Roman London, Leicester and Colchester when Brussels and Strasbourg were still swamps". He indicated towards a side wall of the gallery where several tastefully mounted and garishly-lit marble and bronze statue fragments were displayed against the background of a diorama of a 'European swamp'.

The exhibition strikes me not only, as a European, as somewhat questionable but also premature. Britain cannot even take control of its own 'Brexit process' (I use the term loosely) and is itself mired in a populist swamp of its own. Once again, antiquities fall victim to jingoist nationalist narrative.

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