Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Elgin Marbles: Ownership & Installation

In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin traveled to Athens, discovered marble fragments of sculpture on the Acropolis, and negotiated with the then-governing power, the Ottoman Empire, for the removal of the marbles. He shipped them back to his home in Scotland, where word spread about their beauty. Those who had been on the Grand Tour had seen Rome, so they were familiar with the Colosseum, the Forum, and Trajan's Column. But these new works from ancient Greece, hundreds of years older than Rome, were considered a marvel to behold. Elgin sold the marbles to the British government in 1816 because he was facing bankruptcy and needed to liquidate his assets. This act of desperation, however, became one of the greatest gifts of cultural heritage in the history of the Western world.

The simplicity and purity of the 5th-century BCE fragments of marble sculpture from the Parthenon became world famous once they were installed in the British Museum. And there they have sat since then, with tourists, artists, writers, art historians, and classicists visiting them for nearly 200 years. For more than 20 years now, the Greek government has been arguing for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The opening of the state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens has brought the dilemma of what to do with the sculpture into the forefront of cultural debates. This new museum does house the parts of the marbles that Elgin left behind, and the Greeks have been fighting to have them reunited with the larger portion that is in London. The debate seems to divide people. Those in favor of Greece getting them back see it as a form of patriotism. Those in support of the British recognize that the sculpture has had a new life in modern times thanks to Elgin, the works having influenced generations of art and literature production, and can now be seen in the context of other world cultures. What really is at stake here for the museum world is the ongoing debate over who owns cultural artifacts: museums who obtained them (legally or illegally), or modern-day nations that claim to have a right to repatriate the cultural artifacts of their ancestors. It is worth pointing out that neither the British nor the Greeks seem to be squabbling over how Elgin obtained the marbles. Nothing was apparently done illegally; the Ottomans had the right to sell them if they wished.

I have to confess, I'm somewhere in the middle of all this, but I seem to lean more on the side of the British Museum. I do see both sides of the argument. However, I feel as if the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece will open a proverbial can of worms, and museums around the world will begin to be forced to return millions of objects. It would shift cultural studies and economies in ways that one cannot even begin to imagine. It isn't as if change is bad. It could be good. But in truth many of these countries like Greece are only now just beginning to establish themselves economically in a way that they can properly house the artifacts and still make them available to the public at large. The British Museum may not be willing to return the sculpture, but they continue to want to engage in discussions over a loan exchange program with the Greek government. Apparently the Greeks are not willing. You can read more about all this and the new museum by reading these articles from The New York Times: "A Home for the Marbles" by Christopher Hitchens and "Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light" by Michael Kimmelman. CultureGrrl also had a recent post on the British Museum Director's "whopper" of a comment regarding the Greek government on the debate.

When I was in London I thought it might be interesting to take a few pictures of the Elgin Marbles, not so much as objects, but as an installation. Part of the discussion about the marbles has to do with how they are (or would be) exhibited. One of the things I discovered as I walked throughout the entire gallery is that the British Museum is definitely on the offensive about staking its rightful claim. One of the introductory wall labels in the gallery reads: "Elgin's removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the [Parthenon] has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain--his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution. It is also thanks to Elgin that generations of visitors have been able to see the sculptures at eye level rather than high up on the building. In London and Athens the sculptures tell different and complementery stories. In Athens they are part of a museum that focuses upon the ancient history of the city and its Acropolis. In the British Museum, they are part of a world museum, where they can be connected with other ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt, Assyria, and Persia." Here's a picture of one of the other wall labels to educate visitors about the construction of the Parthenon and its respective sculpted parts: the frieze, the metopes, and the pedimental figures.

This is an image of the frieze. Sculpted in low-relief, the frieze ran around the inner wall of the Parthenon and was one continuous scene. The image at the very top is just one panel from the frieze. In the background of this shot you can see the sculpture from the east pediment.

Here is a shot of the free-standing pedimental sculpture. I have no idea who the man is, but he serves to give you a good sense of high high the sculpture is on the pedestal. In the background are two of the metopes that decorated the outside of the temple separated by architectural triglyphs.

Finally, this is one of the metopes depicting the battle of the Greeks and Centaurs (half-man/half-horse creatures). These were carved in high-relief, making the figures practically pop out of their frame as if they were free-standing sculptures as well. And here's the crux of all this. Did you know that all of this sculpture was at one time painted? The only reason why it's white today is because the paint has faded.

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