The British Museum and its antiquated imperial practices

Perhaps its an arcane preoccupation in the eyes of certain people but the continuing refusal of the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, remains a global issue of some significance for many people, including me.

This is an issue that simply won’t go away. It won’t go away because the world has entered a new era. No longer is the significance of things determined by the political and economic needs of great imperial powers. In another insensitive era, of empire and naive beliefs in doctrines of convenience such as terra nullius, the cultures of conquered people were diminished by invaders and their material elements transformed into the interior décor of imperial halls, but the times are changing. Dismembering sites of cultural significance, be they centres of spiritual significance or merely tombs and graveyards, can no longer be sustained as an educational act, as significantly adding meaning to our collective sense of who we are.

The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum

Although Greece is effectively bankrupt, as the seat of ancient and important culture, it has given much to the world. One need only reflect for a moment on the constant repetition of the Parthenon’s form, of the impact of Classical Greek sculpture on artistic expression and our understanding of the human form.

The British Museum building, Russell Square, influenced by the the Parthenon

What 18th and 19th century European Imperialism did, whether in the name of Britannia or La Belle France, was to dismember the material culture of colonised peoples and transform it into ‘educational’ artifacts that became new conceptual commodities to be studied in the context of a new imperial taxonomy, one devoid of the subtle meanings that imbued it in its original context.

In 2006 Cambridge University Press published this excellent work Exploring and Establishing Links for a Balanced Art and Cultural Heritage Policy, by Barbara T. Hoffman. She undertakes an extensive global review of the issues and it’s well worth a read. On the matter of the Parthenon marnles, she is most interesting, when she writes:

Requests for the restitution of cultural property are not a new issue in international law. In the famous case of the so-called “Elgin24 marbles,” or “Parthenon marbles,” Lord Byron was among the first to criticize the removal of the collection of marble figures and a frieze from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who offered them for sale to the British Parliament in 1816. The formal request by Greece in 1983 by Melina Mercouri, its then Minister of Culture, for the return of the marbles remains the best known and most discussed paradigm in academic and political fora. Indeed, the Greek delegation included in its statement to the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin that all countries have the right to recover the most significant part of their cultural heritage lost during periods of colonial or foreign occupation.

An imperial time warp
To this day the British Museum lives in a virtual imperial time warp. It’s board of trustees blandly asserting 19th century principles of museology and still displaying elements out of context in such imperials halls. When challenged on their retention of the such globally significant materials as the Parthenon Marbles the Board of Trustees often attempts a justification on the grounds that the Marbles are displayed in a purpose built gallery and seen annually by some six million visitors, free of charge. The obvious financial benefit the Museum derives from possession of the Marbles, and extensive associated merchandising, is neatly avoided. Instead they advance the notion that their collections of cultural property, appropriated from places all over the world, communicate to a world audience and provides an international context where cultures can be experienced by all, and contrasted across time and place.

Assertions advanced by the British Museum are based on antiquated notions of museums and their purpose. This philosophy inherently values and promotes the notion of the dismemberment and the rendering of dynamic cultural settings into collections of artifacts. It fails to acknowledge that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts or the diminished meaning of the parts once they are detached from the whole and from the biophysical and cultural contexts that gave rise to them.

Melina Mercouri Brings Matters To A Head
Speaking to the Oxford Union in 1986 Greek Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri addressed some of the central concerns of the early 19th century dismembering of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. She explained that as British Ambassador to the Otterman Empire in a period following the defeat of French forces in Egypt immense gratitude was extended to the British state and as its representative Elgin was given unprecedented access to the Parthenon. By this stage under Otterman control for about 300 years so Elgin’s access was granted through the issuing of a special Firman. This is a document, in Sharia law, granting the Sultan’s permission. In this case the original Firman was never produced by Elgin, instead a translation wastenedered to the british Parliamrnt. In part this document reads:

That the artists meet no opposition in walking, viewing, contemplating the pictures and buildings they may wish to design or copy; or in fixing scaffolding around the ancient temple; or in modelling with chalk or gypsum the said ornaments and visible figures; or in excavating, when they find it necessary, in search of inscriptions among the rubbish. Nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures.

Much has been written about this Firman. Although the official language for such documents at the time was Farsi, no sign of such a document has yet been found. Elgin’s Firman was written in Italian.

Mercouri observed that:

These instructions are given to the governors — and the point is made in the firman — because of the excellent relations between the two countries, and I quote again:

“…particularly as there is no harm in the said buildings being thus viewed, contemplated and drawn”.

The full text of Melina Mercouri’s speech is at the Hellenic Electronic Center Portal

Some contemporary comment
A clever 3D animation of the Parthenon contrasting it’s dynamic setting and outstanding scuptural forms and with the archaic approach of the British Museum.

An ironic look at the inherent perversity of dismembering cultural icons

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