“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.
This is the entry bridge to the new Acropolis Museum. The Museum rises above more than 3000 years of neighborhood history.
The plaster facsimile of one of Selene’s chariot horses from the eastern pediment.
The context: look past the horse to the eastern pediment of the Parthenon.
The plaster Demeter and Persephone, Athens.
The original in London.
The plaster Dionysus in Athens.
The original in London.
A plaster metope sculpture in Athens.
The original (sans heads) in London.
Ah, Athens scores the occasional original.
The scant remains of the Western pediment frieze benefit from our seeing the Western pediment through the window.