Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Taking your marbles and going home?

This is a bit off my usual topics, but I'm a former member of the wacky and unusual world of museum employees. It was great fun and many of my closest friends are still in the museum world as curators and interpreters. And in the interest of full disclosure, I am a museum junkie. When I go to a new city or country, the first places I'm likely to check out are the local museums. You learn a great deal about the culture walking through these halls of history, science or art. So I am understandably a bit torn when it comes to the issue of The Marbles (Elgin/Pathenon) and where they should live.

On my first trip to London I literally ran to the British Museum. All the wonders! I spent the entire day there, though I could easily have spent the week. Of all the exhibits and objects on display, The Elgin Marbles or The Parthenon Marbles, moved me most. While I didn't know then the entire story of Lord Elgin and how he got those amazing pieces to the UK, I did realize that it wasn't an ideal situation in any case. (Small understatement, there, I think...) I was awestruck. The reliefs and friezes were beautiful, of course, but it was the age and history behind them that made them even more important and impressive. I left the museum feeling as though I'd been let in on some age old secret.

A few years later I was lucky enough to find myself in Athens, just before the 2004 Olympics. No trip to Athens, or Greece in general, would have been complete without visiting the Acropolis. Even in the state it was in and with tourists milling everywhere, it wasn't hard to imagine the entire site as it must have been. The ubiquitous stray cats must have milled around when the original workers and masons were building the Parthenon as well. It was a privilege and a pleasure to spend an afternoon absorbed in antiquity.

I'd never given much thought to the controversy over where these objects should be on display. Surely when I saw them at the British Museum I had no second thoughts over whether they ought to be there. I was merely thrilled to be able to see the various friezes. And after my trip to Greece, and my afternoon on the Acropolis, I could surely understand why the Greek people felt The Marbles should be in Greece. They were national treasures and an integral part of their great history.

So fast forward to present day Athens, post Olympics and now, with a fantastic new museum for the various bits and bobs from the Acropolis. The bits and bobs other than The Elgin Marbles. And herein lies the conflict. The British government and museum establishment has always maintained that so long as Athens didn't have a real place for The Marbles, they were better off in the British Museum. Not a bad argument, all in all. But now the Greeks have their own fantastic and state of the art (at least so it appears and seems to be from the recent articles by Christopher Hitchens, et al) museum that could easily and happily house the treasures. Problem solved, right? Yeah, not so fast. As any museum will attest, the arguments for repatriation (even for NAGPRA--Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) represent a slippery slope. The worry boils down to this: If you give one thing back to the country/site where it came from, every museum, everywhere, will have to give everything back to the country it came from. So Winged Victory has to leave the Louvre, the Temple of Dendur has to leave the Met. See why museums get a little nervous about repatriating?

I can see both sides of this issue and I know if I were a Greek citizen I'd be quite vocal about advocating for the return of The Marbles. And if I worked for the British Museum I'd be equally as opposed to returning the pieces. It's a difficult subject but one many museums will be mulling over to see what it could mean to them and their collections.

I've put in a link to the really well-researched article that the NYT did on the new museum (The Elgin Marbles) that probably discusses this better than I could, so check out their piece and decide for yourself. Where should The Marbles be?

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