I’ve never quite got off the fence on this one.
Every time I visit the British Museum, I find myself as much interested in the
museum’s latest defense for keeping the Elgin Marbles in that exquisite room as I am in those noble horses and the determined human and centaur warriors.
Once upon a time, a propaganda placard argued that this purpose-built room perfectly houses and protects the marbles that the Greeks allowed the Venetians to use for target practice. Moreover, the British Museum is less a national repository and more an international treasure, one that draws millions of visitors a year from around the globe. Why immure these glorious stones in some backwater, regional, technologically inadequate display case where no one will see them?
Of course, the Greeks have now built their exquisite museum just at the base of the Acropolis. If the marbles were returned and installed where the curator has a place reserved, you could look beyond the sculptures and, through the soaring glass wall, see the Parthenon itself high above. This is both an imaginative and a real leap of artistic joy.
Well, then, huffs the Brit: we bought them fair and square, and we have the paperwork to prove it. If the stones were so important to Greece, they should not have sold them in the first place. This is essentially, if I understand the long-standing brouhaha, the argument Mr. Bingham’s Yale made to Peru since Hiram Bingham bought thousands of artifacts in the 1920s. In 2011, however, Yale came round to accept Peru’s right to its cultural heritage. A nation’s legacy may, in a case like this, carry greater weight than a bill of sale. No less a figure than Ernesto Zedillo (Yale PhD and former President of Mexico) brokered the deal, proving that such a case is still devilishly delicate or that cultural heritage must be defended at the highest possible levels.
Yale had the paperwork, the scientific resources, the convenient location, and, of course the artifacts themselves. Since trekking to Machu Picchu is decidedly less leisurely than vacationing in London, Yale had a better case for keeping its Incan treasure than England has in keeping the marbles. Yet Peru prevailed and/or Yale took the ethical highroad. The jury, so far as I can see from my uncomfortable perch on the fence, is still out on the Brits.
And here I am in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. I have visited Ephesus on the west coast of Turkey, and I plan to return there this fall. (The photograph introducing this blog shows the great library of Celsus at Ephesus.) Human habitation in the area began more than 10,000 years ago—and that’s the known Greek colonization. By the time the Romans added this jewel to her colonies, it sported a population of some 250,000, making it one of the greatest cities in the Mediterranean world. The city’s cultural and ethnographic history includes pre-Greek, Greek, Roman, Turkish, Christian, Byzantine eras. Here, the apostle Paul took great care to advise the smiths, who made their living fashioning silver icons, to give up their idolatries, presumably to produce crucifixes instead.
Austrian archeologists have worked in the ruins of Ephesus for more than a hundred years. Indeed, the Austrians found the library of Celsus collapsed and strewn about the agora. They re-erected it, piecing it together from thousands upon thousands of remnants and shards. Such a painstaking job, and such a different approach to preserving the past from the purchase and export Lord Elgin engineered ninety years earlier.
The Austrian scientists also found an enormous frieze that rivals the Parthenon frieze in size and artistic value. Unlike the sculptures, which Elgin had removed from the very walls of Athena’s temple, this frieze was scattered throughout the large city. Pieces had been pulled down and put to other uses so the original functions and location of the massive work remain unknown.
The frieze depicts scenes of the war in which Lucius Verus led the Roman troops in their victory over the Parthians (or Persians). Panels depict Lucius being adopted as Hadrian’s grandson, assuring him a role in the succession of Roman emperors. The last (?) panel shows the Apotheosis of Lucius Verus—his ascension as a god—after his death. (Lucius’ real accomplishments as a gambler and boozer may have been memorialized on some other parts of the frieze, but those panels have sadly gone walkabout.)
A Thursday afternoon in Vienna is a perfect enough time to spend a few hours with these carvings. But when I return to Ephesus this fall, I will certainly find one place, or two, or twelve where seeing these horses and warriors and sacrificial animals would deepen and draw closer the living-ness of history. Why should the war that alters history become a museum piece a thousand miles away when its memorial can fill the landscape where the history occurred? And why shouldn’t we have to work for our connections to our history? Besides, we need to compensate for nature’s part in the destruction of our history. The river that once made Ephesus a great port betrayed the city. It silted up and thus encouraged traders to move up the coast to Smyrna where the big freighters still seek harbor. The population shift left a grand city of 250,000 to the carelessness of time, sand, and re-purposing. The Austrian scientists began the salvaging of the city. I wonder now if they are savaging it instead.
Or is that last paragraph hopelessly illogical? If nature says, “Let it go,” who are we not to accede? It would not be foolish to read Ephesus under the title Look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.
I am appending a small gallery of pictures I took at the Ephesus Museum. Perhaps you will see some aesthetically pleasing or dramatically interesting imaginative moment. But they are not the Thing Itself in its Own Place.
Am I off the fence? You?