“Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar. . .

“Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein!”

Such was the battle cry of the Iraqi Ba’thist party as Hussein sought to instill a nationalism rooted in deep history that culminated inevitably in Hussein’s pre-eminence. Once in power, Hussein sponsored archeology and archeological museums for ideological purposes. And he moved aggressively to repatriate antiquities from museums around the world. Whether it was megalomania or a perfectly timed cultural phenomenon, Hussein was hardly alone in connecting the antique past with contemporary political ambitions. Turkey, Italy, and Greece, among others, have made similar nationalist or “cultural identity” cases for the return of artifacts, many of which have been held by the great “encyclopedic” museums—the British Museum, the Metropolitan, the Louvre—for centuries. And, to complicate matters, UNESCO, which once aimed to protect antiquities from war damage, theft, and illegal sales, now seems inclined to accept the argument that national identity and cultural heritage are sufficient reasons to demand the repatriation of a nation’s self-proclaimed patrimony.

Sometimes the debate sounds like First World condescension towards a Third World little brother or a liberated colony rebuking its former colonial master. For instance, sometimes the great museums argue that a “universal” institution like the Brit serves all mankind while a small, provincial museum in faraway Athens only caters to the few hardies who venture so far as Greece. Sometimes the greats hurl historical sarcasm at the neo-nationalists. When Turkey demands a Greek or Roman or Persian or Hittite artifact, the reply might be, “Why not demand that we send that piece back to Greece or Rome? There’s nothing Turkish about it except that it was found in Turkish dirt.” And, indeed, Turkey didn’t become a national state for millennia after these former civilizations vanished, so it’s preposterous to say that an individual Turk’s identity is bound, say, to the Celsus Library at Ephesus. Why, America might as well argue that Indian totem poles are crucial to every modern American’s consciousness and self-understanding.

Besides, Lord Elgin bought those friezes from the Parthenon fair and square.

But in today’s political climate, national identity, cultural heritage, and the pride that rises from honoring a common past, even a mythological past, trump contracts, trump museums, trump boundaries, trump genealogy.

In short, the positions of the Retainers and the Returners are intractable. Each has powerful arguments to make; each has precedent and sometimes law on its side. Each can be accused to overplaying its hand, of re-inventing history, of lying about provenance, of manipulating universal aesthetic concerns for short-term political gain.

As a traveler and as a lover of museums, I am dissatisfied with all these arguments. My nature inclines towards the cultural heritage side. But then, perhaps my most powerful museum experience was first encountering the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. But then again, that experience was dwarfed years later when I visited Athens for the first time and stood on the holy rock of the Acropolis wishing that the marbles were there. Of course, if they had been still affixed to the pediment, they would have been destroyed by acid rain. Ah, but when the British Museum’s conservators cleaned the marbles in the 1930s, they all but ruined the surfaces with powerful chemicals and abrasives.

Now, here I am in Athens at the new Acropolis Museum.  The building stands just below the Acropolis; its glass walls on every level keep the hill and the Parthenon in constant view. To reinforce the immediate archeological context of the museum, the promenade from the street to the entrance peers down into an active dig. In a year or two, this survey of 1400 years of Athenian neighborhood history will be open to the public to explore. Inside the museum, a long, broad incline rises to the second floor. The glass floor lets you look into the ongoing excavation beneath the museum. The glass is dusky and covered with a pattern of black dots so that you must gaze, it seems, through space and time to see the domestic panorama below.

The dominant exhibit is on the top floor. The Parthenon Gallery maintains the same orientation and the same measurements as the Parthenon itself. To emphasize this orientation, the entire floor is canted several degrees from the rest of the museum’s geometric shape. The artifacts—some original, many plaster copies—are positioned just as they were on the original temple. The pediment friezes—the birth of Athena on the east pediment and the battle between Athena and Poseidon on the west—are at eye level. The metopes that decorated the long sides of the temple are set somewhat higher on the walls. Thus, you can walk entirely around the exhibit as if you were on the temple grounds and, on three sides of the gallery, you can always see the temple itself.

How wonderful it would be if the original marbles were returned from England to grace this hall. How unfortunate that so many of the riches are prominent by their absence, an absence underscored by the bland plaster models of Elgin’s haul.

I doubt The British Museum will ever relinquish the marbles. But there should be a mechanism  by which at least some of the treasures–these and thousands of others–might be shared.  Over the course of this summer’s travels, I hope to begin making a case that substitutes a contextual approach to museum management for the “universal” and the “national heritage” systems. I’ve kept you too long already on this post, but I invite you to consider the accompanying photographs—some of the original marbles housed in the lovely hall at the British Museum and the plaster facsimiles (plus a few originals) at the Acropolis Museum. Having stood in the presence of both, I confess to have been abashed if not insulted to see, in this beautiful museum, in full view of the Parthenon itself, fakes.


Entry Bridge to the Acropolis Museum

This is the entry bridge to the new Acropolis Museum. The Museum rises above more than 3000 years of neighborhood history.


Gallery of Archaic Era StatuesThe spacious hall of Archaic Era sculpture.

Plaster Horse from Selene's Chariot, Athens






The plaster facsimile of one of Selene’s chariot horses from the eastern pediment.

The Original in the British MuseumThe original handsomely displayed in the British Museum.

The Plaster Model with the Parthenon in View





The context: look past the horse to the eastern pediment of the Parthenon.

Plaster Demeter and Persephone, Athens



The plaster Demeter and Persephone, Athens.

Demeter and Persephone in the Brit



The original in London.

Plaster Dionysius in Athens




The plaster Dionysus in Athens.

The Real McCoy in London




The original in London.

But Most of the Metopes in Athens are Plaster





A plaster metope sculpture in Athens.

An Original in London




The original (sans heads) in London.

Athens Scores and Original




Ah, Athens scores the occasional original.

Remains of the Western Pediment Frieze Gazes up at the Western Pediment




The scant remains of the Western pediment frieze benefit from our seeing the Western pediment through the window.


An Original in Athens. Yes, it Would Have Been Painted, but the Lovely Stone must Surpass the PlasterOriginal processional figure, Athens. Yes, this was painted so perhaps this beautiful stone didn’t show through. But, still. . . .

5 thoughts on ““Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar. . .

  1. Peter, I too was thrilled to see the Elgin marbles in the British Museum where they were being carefully cared for. However, now that I see your wonderful photographs of the new Acropolis Museum, I think they should be returned! Thanks so much for sharing. Carol

  2. In the matter of classical artifacts, “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road,” by Anthony Hopkirk, is a good survey of the politics of confiscation in the name of science and civilization, and return, in the name of national pride and cultural identity. Practices on all sides have led to destruction of a great many ancient artifacts. The practical result of that discussion leads to the conclusion that the safest place for archeological finds is to remain in the ground, and that’s no longer an option, if it ever was. For good discussions of Renaissance-inspired, Western glorification of things white and otherwise colorless from antiquity versus the dawning realization that, as to the Greeks, “No nation ever exhibited a greater passion for gaudy colors” (Sir Wm. Gell, 1817), see “Color and Culture, Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction”, by John Gage. Gage notes several recurring themes in his cross-cultural survey: One is the idea that verbal language is incapable of defining the experience of color; another is “the notion from Antiquity to Matisse of an ‘Orient’ which was an exciting and dangerous repository of colored materials and attitudes. These two themes were constantly interrelated in the belief that the rational traditions of Western culture were under threat from insidious non-Western sensuality.” To which I can only reply, let’s hear it for non-Western sensuality!

  3. When you told me your travel plans, I did not imagine that you would be able to so quickly make this argument. The side by side photo comparisons are a very strong element. I did not expect that I would feel so slapped in the face by the plaster placeholders as a dummies. I have always been easily fooled in museums as to what is a duplicate and what is the real thing, and I attribute that to care and great art of the reproductions to simulate the originals. Here, the plasters are so waxen. I wanted to say that maybe that was the fault of the photographer having taken the photos in Athens in less flattering midday light, while the dramatic effect is heightened by the lighting of the British Museum, but I can’t even let that idea get past my lips. I then wonder how I would feel about your argument if the duplicates in Athens were more believable looking. I then fear the idea that I could be pacified with imitations. I am content with duplicates for preserving the originals, in a similar vein of Fred’s quotation above, that the safest place for archaeological artifacts is in the ground… or a storage room away from us modern marauding gawkers. But, even then, museums are intended for preservation and education.
    Anywho, I digress. You are successful, sir; I give a yay to your movement for cultural context. I do not have an answer for items bought fair and square, but we’ve seen in history how people who have been taken advantage of have been retroactively reimbursed or been struck deals with. And for those items where the benefit of transference was safety from wartime, well, that’s nice, you’ve had your custody, now give them back.

    • Jamie, I was also stunned by how amateurish the copies in the Acropolis Museum looked. But I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. I’ve been reading quite persuasive stuff by the curator of the Chicago Art Institute who, of course, argues exclusively on behalf of the “encyclopedic” museum like the Brit or the Metropolitan. He looks at the nationalist or “retentionist” argument as merely jejune and purely motivated by a political and cultural elite that rarely cares for much beyond its hold on power.
      Here’s an interesting middle case: Yes, some folk would like to see all the originals returned to Athens, but they will have to be content to see those originals in the museum, not re-attached to the Parthenon itself. Already the five Lady Caryatids are on display in the museum. One of them, in fact, is being restored behind closed curtains, just as it would be if it were still holding up the roof of the Erecthion. So, do we have a compromise here: the relics may come home, but they can’t return to their original positions (even if the Parthenon is being restored to within inches of its lives so you might think they could go ahead and restore everything original)?
      This case is going to get more complicated as we see other sites, particularly in Berlin. But you are correct: the Athens experience is so stunning a disappointment that it seems the museum has deliberately erected shabby copies to irritate us.

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