Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Personal comment

About the book ‘Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific’

cover

Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific’, is 29 short stories in the genre of creative non-fiction. Tracing Australian connections with Asia and the Pacific through three generations, it is published in 2015 by Glass House Books an imprint of Interactive Publications (IP) ISBN: 9781925231182. Also, in Kindle and as an Audio Book. (Pecha Kucha about the book)

Influencing this collection is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar. By contrast, when beyond our immediate culture meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the ‘developed world’, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from Australia, the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

A short biography 

‘Born in 1947 Russell Darnley had grandparents who were children when Australia achieved its independence, lived through World War I, and struggled as parents through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

His parents found their first paid employment as World War II broke out. Growing up in Sydney by the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and with a seafaring father, gave him an interest in what lay beyond. His childhood saw the birth of multicultural Australia, which he embraced, and ended with Conscription and the Vietnam War, both of which he resisted. As a young adult he travelled the world and discovered that his interests lay in South East Asia. Working respectively as teacher, administrator, researcher, director of an Indonesia based field study centre, consultant to the Australia Indonesia Institute, educational writer and digital education pioneer, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his voluntary work after the 2002 Bali Bombings.

Russell’s outlook is eclectic and interdisciplinary, passionately scientific yet profoundly spiritual.’

He has lived in Singapore since January 2014.

What the reviewers say

Associate Professor David Reeve, Visiting Fellow UNSW, School of Humanities and Languages

In launching the book, David had this to say: “This is partly creative fiction though it’s based on his own life and I think of it of keeping to a tradition of writing on Asia. I remember the excitement back in 1978 when Chris Koch published The Year of Living Dangerously then in 1980 Blanche D’Alpuget published Monkeys in the Dark and in 1981 Turtle Beach. Robert Drew in 1981 published A Cry in the Jungle Bar.

When I look at the similarity of those four novels in each of those Australians go forward full of high ideals and anticipation but in fact come home defeated, physically wounded or psychologically wounded or in the case of the hero of A Cry in the Jungle Bar actually dead.

So, I think this is a new and more mature and more realistic mood in Russell Darnley’s book. The Australian doesn’t go out with high hopes to Asia, gets defeated and returns partially destroyed, certainly damaged. In him it’s a much more complex engagement, it has of course it fears, it’s dangers, its sicknesses but it’s much more mature in its approach to the complexities of these enmeshments.”

T. D. Luong, author of The Refugee Wolf

Sometimes distance can help us recast our perceptions of the world. They can be based on unspoken and wrong assumptions about culture and identity. The Australian author, currently based in Singapore, but who is fluent in Indonesian because of having provided extensive cultural tours in his former career, is well positioned to recast such perceptions. He forces us to ask: is Australia’s relationship with Asia working well enough to bridge the cultural divide?

The opening and closing chapters are deftly written book-ends. They are set at Coogee beach and it is the author’s emotional connection to this place and relationship with his grandfather that helps us look outwards to inviting places like Bali, then inwards to ruminate upon the darkness and trauma that fell upon us after the 2002 bombings.

Darnley’s exceptional debut work reframes Australia’s relationship with Asia and Melanesia in a myriad of ways.

There are entertaining stories over 50 years, which traverse Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, PNG, just to name the main places. There’s a story set in Bali about adultery and told through the prism of magic; another one reflects upon Baby Boomers and their perception of the Japanese after WW2, and there’s a hilarious one about an activist uni student who dodges the Vietnam War draft.

The book also reframes Australia’s identity. Does Australia lean more towards being progressive or conservative or vacillate between both, and how might this impact on our relationship with Asia?

Through many personal journeys, observations and interesting characters, he illuminates and expands upon the notion, which is at the heart of the book. What we sometimes see in an empirical way is not necessarily what lies underneath. There are intangible structures such us cultural practice, memory, spirituality and power relationships which intersect, weave and give rise to more nuanced complexity than what we can fully rationalise or even articulate at a given point in time.

Seen and Unseen is an insightful, intelligent and very significant book which helps us learn more about the Asian region and ourselves as Australians.

With his hard-won insights and descriptive powers of observation, Russell Darnley is a cultural interpreter of the first rank.

Kim Patra, Author, In the Arms of Angels

It’s a very candid and wonderfully written account of the Bali Bombings. Pretty hard to read actually, emotionally, I guess the ghosts never really go away, do they?

Bill Dalton in Toko Buku, Bali Advertiser, (for Ubud Readers’ & Writers’ Festival) October 2016.

This entertaining and enlightening book of short stories spanning 100 years is a work of naked and unflinching honesty. The subject matter perfectly compliments the spirit of this year’s UWRF whose dictum is Tat Tvam Asi, translated as ‘I am you, you are me.” Darnley’s experiences help us understand the lives of others and recognize our common humanity. As the writer himself puts it, “Seeking meaning across cultures we each absorb a little of the other and enter a new cultural space where I am you and you are me.”

Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell author of Cairo Mon Amour

‘Seen and unseen’: testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee.

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Ian Burnet author of ‘Where Australia Collides with Asia

Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather.  They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.

He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Years later in 1984, Russell is involved in setting up Asian Field Study Centres for Australian students in Bali. It is here that he first becomes aware of the interplay of the ‘Seen and the Unseen’ and begins to realise that it has always formed part of his life. Here, in Bali, he experiences just how the Balinese are immersed in both a physical and a spiritual world, and some practice ‘black magic’ as well.

In Indonesia in 1999 to deliver workshops for [Indonesian] teachers whose students are studying Australia meant he happened to be in Surabaya and Jakarta during the tremendous outburst of joy and energy of the nation’s youth, after 35 years of suppression under Suharto’s military dictatorship. He is present in the middle of the excited masses and vividly describes the political campaigning for the first democratic elections after this long period.

Russell’s description of his response to the 2002 Bali bombing in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and his volunteer work in aiding the victims and their families at the Sanglah Hospital, must be highlight of his book (if that is the right word). Personally, I had to pause several times to recover my emotions while reading his descriptions of these traumatic events.

Seen and Unseen concludes where it starts with the now elder Russell in conversation with his long-departed grandfather around the headland of Coogee, while trying to understand his life experiences and the significance of the seen and unseen. The strength of Russell Darnley’s writing is his ability to position himself as an observant outsider. Central to his work is the idea that interactions with people from cultures other than our own, in particular those of Asia, allow us to challenge many of our own assumptions. His engaging memoir will be a ‘must read’ by all those who have an interest in Asia and wish to follow his footsteps.

Personal comment

Moving House

Sitting at the local Zion Riverside Food Centre, my local food hall. There was time for reflection, and the first opportunity to relax here in about 2 weeks.
Moving apartments seems to get harder as the years pass. So far I’ve only moved 17 times, hardly an example of itinerancy.

 

Pioneers of itinerancy

Itinerancy is a feature of life for some.
Kazakh yurt, shown on a horse-drawn cart. Wikicommons
The nomadic communities of the Eurasian steppes moved at least twice a year.  These movements generally coincided during the summer and winter. Severe winters made finding shelter for animals essential. In the summer they moved to grassed areas where animals could graze.

 

Development of languages

While nomads tended to move in the same region over time they also drifted further west. As they moved they made contact with more settled communities, acquiring new languages and participating in a linguistic synthesis that produced what we came to know as the Aryan language group, though the tainting of the term Aryan through its misuse by European Nazis, ensured the more neutral term Proto-Indo-European came into common use.

 

Linguistic evolution
Another way of looking at it.

The burden of possessions

Modern humans, at least those of us in the First World, are burdened by goods. We’ve long lost the economy of living a frugal life with few possessions and with tools and comfort that were enduring.  This angsting over moves is a First World problem.

One week after the physical move I managed to move our own kitchen one step closer to being functional. I’m still working on my office, though out of the mess I’ve finished a new story.

 

Exhaustion set in

What was to be a highlight in June, the 10th anniversary of the Acropolis Museum’s opening, came and went. Somehow I managed to cobble together an audio-visual piece to mark the occasion.
The launch of a song by Héllena Micy, The Parthenon Marbles (Bring them back) came and went. I managed to watch its launch, in the British Museum, live. Yet all had an air of unreality about it.

 

To dry clean or not dry clean

Preparing for the move had taken a while. The end game, the handing over to an agent, came yesterday, but not before they insisted on us dry cleaning some flimsy IKEA curtains. After numerous attempts at negotiating with dry cleaners who wanted outrageous prices and 3-4 day waits, I realised the curtains were marked ‘Do not dry clean’. Next step was to wash, dry and hang them. Easy enough and a great view from the second top rung of a step ladder up against the window on the 19th floor

 

Stuffing up the optical fibre

So fatigue has been an issue in setting up the new place. At first, I was so tired I stuffed up the fibre internet connection. I had more robust optical fibre on hand, than the length our provider ‘Star Hub’ had supplied. In my fatigue, I reasoned that it might be like a water pipe. My piece was thicker. Maybe this would let more light in, so we’d get faster speeds/more bandwidth. Well, that was the theory. It didn’t work, and since ‘Star Hub’ retained the pin for activating the connection, my new configuration failed. Eventually, they came and reconnected us. Next was the challenge of the smart TV. It should have been a pushover, but in my fatigued state if took far longer than usual.

Needless to say, we’re connected. The speeds are not quite as good as our last place, but still way ahead of Australia.

I almost forgot to mention that in the midst of the process where was a day with a funeral in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon.

Bali, Personal comment, religion, terrorism

When opposition to the death penalty is not opposition to the death penalty

My focus isn’t generally on such immediate and potentially controversial matters but recent developments in Britain cause me to consider the issue of capital punishment. I won’t address the British problem directly, other than to describe the background. My interest is closer to home in matters that are and were similar.

Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh.

The case of Kotey and Elsheikh

It’s alleged that Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, captured in eastern Syria in January 2018, were members of a four-man cell of Isis executioners in Syria and Iraq. It’s further alleged that they are responsible for killing journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines.

We all know about the despicable ways ISIS administered the death penalty.

It has now emerged that both Kotey and Elsheikh have been stripped of their British citizenship stripped, presumably because they were considered members of a proscribed terrorist organisation. Now they face a judicial process, not in Britain but in the USA, where the death penalty is likely to apply if convicted.

It’s complicated. Usually, when British citizens are charged with a capital offence in another country the UK government seeks an assurance that they will not be subjected to the death penalty. British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has written to the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions saying:

“I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.”

Reaction in the UK where the death penalty has long been abandoned has been strongly critical of the government’s position.

2002 Bali Bombings

When Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to Death, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard played the populist card, as usual. In an interview with the late Mark Colvin he said:

Some people say that I should be thumping the table and saying don’t execute the man. I’m not going to do that because I do respect the judicial processes of Indonesia. I also believe for me to do that would offend many Australians who lost people, who legitimately feel as decent Australians that a death penalty is appropriate.

Howard’s association of decency and judicial murder was Hammurabic in tone. Notions of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, this primitive sense of justice, resonated well with the mood of some. Simon Crean, Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition wasn’t much better. He said:

“The fact is he committed a crime on Indonesian soil and he faced justice under the Indonesian judicial system. I’m not quibbling with their decision.”

At the time my reaction was just, what weak bunch Australian politicians can be, such an opportunistic lot.

Only Duncan Kerr, former Attorney General, impressed me. He was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald speaking against the against the clamour for blood saying:

“Principled opposition to the death penalty cannot be switched off and on”.

Like many Australians, he expressed something I was feeling at the time when he said:

“I am torn apart by these events but nothing will remake the lives lost or repair the hurts suffered.”

In the same article Duncan Kerr also quoted Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty who said:

“. . . it would be better to have the bombers locked up as common criminals for the term of their natural life than to give the platform they want to incite others to follow in their footstep,” adding “Our leader’s statements not opposing the use of the death penalty may well be turned against us in tragic circumstances . . .”

Mick Keelty understood the dangers of Shahid, something that Amrozi clearly welcomed, as this image of him after the sentence shows.

Asia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Personal comment, population

#Tigers and orang utan are important but what about the #Indigenous people?

Forest and peat fires in Riau, Indonesia Photo by Julius Lawalata, World Resources Institute.
Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable.  Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.

 

Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

Endangering the primal spirits of the land

The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara.  Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]

Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.

The People

The man on the motorbike was travelling into a forested area.  It seems that, as with the nearby people of the Kampar peninsula 20kms south on the mainland, he was Indigenous and most likely related. Where forests remain in this part of Riau the Indigenous people use them for hunting, charcoaling, fishing and small-scale farming, while supplementing their incomes with wage labouring for the concessionaires (oil, gas, logging and plantations).

Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river.  This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia.  I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands.  Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches.  The same process is evident in Kalimantan.

Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.

Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times.  In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss in Riau

Riau has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Indonesia. When I attended middle school, 50 years ago it was known as an area of equatorial forest and swamp of great diversity but intensive resource extraction (logging, oil and gas) and conversion of forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations means that today the province has lost over 80% of its original forest cover.

Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact

Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta.  It linked to a new book

HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact. 

Click on the cover to download your copy.

The notes on the publication read

“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.

This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”

 

[i] Kempers, B. A. J.                  Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the                                                     monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.

 

 

Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

The Parthenon Marbles and The Fallacy of the Universal Museum

Visiting both Delphi and Olympia for the first time some years ago and then returning again to the Acropolis made the unique geography of each site very apparent. Aspect, atmospherics, elevation, geology, latitude and longitude interact contributing a special energy to each location. The still quite substantial architecture remaining is not only a testimony to the genius of ancient Hellenic design and construction, but to the dynamic relationship between complex forms, their various meanings, functions and the biophysical processes operating at each site. So, removing any element from any of these sites immediately diminishes it’s meaning.

Athenian Treasury, Delphi. By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Athenian Treasury, Delphi.
By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
 Judging from the ubiquitous replication of the Parthenon’s geometry in so many of the world’s facades, it’s quickly apparent that it’s geometric language is readily understood across time and space, as well. Yet the space where it was created, the space it has occupied for so long is above all an Attican space and in the more general sense a Hellenic space. This is a space with a distinct history, a space so valued that people were prepared to give up their lives defending it.

By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This is no collection of artefacts; this is a place with a dynamic connection to the history of the Hellenic people.

In writing this I don’t wish to encourage or condone nationalism but rather to search for meaning in the fullest sense.

A narrative of unauthorised acquisition diminishing meaning

When the Marbles were removed from the Parthenon, Athens was under Ottoman occupation. Legal authority was conveyed in Firman. These were legal documents written in Farsi and signed by the Sultan.

The narrative of the unauthorised and destructive removal of the Parthenon Marbles is simple and the basic facts are these:

  • there is no original Firman authorising anyone to remove the Marbles;
  • Elgin’s team removed architectural elements from the Parthenon, an act that is in conflict with the Italian language document that is cited as a translation of the Firman;
  • the Marbles were mistreated and damaged first by Elgin and subsequently by the British Museum in its ‘cleaning’ operation;

The British Museum’s Arguments For Retention

Over time the British Museum (BM) has offered various arguments for its retention of the Marbles. In summary these are that the Marbles:

➢ were saved from the Turks, something that requires absolute acceptance of Elgin’s rationale;
➢ were saved from Greek neglect and mismanagement;
➢ were better displayed in the BM as Greece had no suitable place to display them;
➢ are free for people to view in the BM unlike the NAM which has an entry fee
➢ are owned by the world not one country and, more people will see them in London
➢ are part of a new Universal Museum allowing comparison of objects from different parts of the world and so facilitating judgements about the development of world culture.

The mere fact that the arguments have changed over the years, exposes the paucity of the BM justification for retention. Eventually, after the other arguments have fallen away, we come to the universal museum argument.

Why one should accept the taxonomy developed by the BM reborn as the so called universal museum? Why might the Marbles be better understood when compared with the BM’s collection than in the NAM?  There has never been a convincing argument advanced for this nostalgic leap of faith into the lingering imperial twilight of the BM as a universal museum.

Understanding the Marbles in the fullest sense

I contend that the Marbles are best understood in their historical and biophysical context. Here they can be readily compared with the rich collections of Hellenic sculpture that remain. What is more they can be understood in their unique geographic context, in their Attican homeland with its unique sunlight and diurnal rhythms, in a landscape shaped by the very tectonic forces that have given rise to the magnificent Pentelic marble from which they are fashioned. Here the true brilliance of Pericles Athens and the creative forces that gave rise to so much innovation can be more fully understood.

If there is need to compare the Marbles with other antiquities arises in the BM then augmented reality techniques and contemporary holographic laser and 3D technology is such that the museum could provide visitors with a portable representation of the Parthenon Sculptures.  This could be a far richer experience than anything yet attempted by the BM, a walk through digital gallery with touch technology conjuring up genuine comparisons between the worlds great cultures in a virtual world.  The merchandising opportunities are immense, partivularly with the rapid innovations in 3D printing.

At best the Universal Museum is a self serving fallacy designed to find further justification for the retention of materials removed from other lands at the height of Britain’s imperial power and permit the BM to continued merchandising and monetising the Parthenon Sculptures.

Were The Marbles Obtained Legally

In making these comments I don’t seek to endorse current initiatives directed at seeking the return of the Marble through litigation. There is little scope for this beyond amending the British Museum Act of 1963. It is still clear that the Marbles were obtained in a manner that failed to accord with accepted legal practices in the Ottoman Empire.

Director of the BM Neil MacGregor argues that Elgin removed the Sculptures lawfully. He conveniently avoids the absence of legal documentation by alleging that the documentation had to be surrendered at the time of export. Interestingly he doesn’t refer to the export document as a firman. An Italian translation of the so called firman has been used in the past in an attempt to prove that Elgin was authorised to remove and export the sculptures. The document in question is actually a poor translation of an Italian translation of what is alleged to be the original Ottoman document.

It now seems almost certain that Elgin’s documentation was not a Firman but merely a letter purportedly signed by Kaimmakam Seyid, Abdullah Pasha, the Deputy to the Grand Vizier or Yusuf Ziyauddin Pasha.

Important in any discussion of legality is the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a theocracy governed not by legislative bodies but my sharia law. Under this system of governance authority to interpret the law was vested in the Sultan. He was also able to issue decrees, provided they were consistent with sharia. These decrees were known as Firman.

A valid firman must contain the following elements:

  1. The emblem of the Sultan, his official seal or tugrah

    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
  2. An invocation to God or da’vet tahmid

    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written  above the tughra.
    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written
    above the tughra.
  3. the Sultan’s monogram;
  4. mention of the officials to whom it was addressed;
  5. specific and formal phrasing; and,
  6. the date according to the Hijri calendar set out in full.

The document used by Elgin in an effort to establish his authority before the House of Commons enquiry in 1816 did not contain these features.

Neil MacGregor also maintains that moving large pieces of marble would have been difficult and obvious and implies that this is an indication that Elgin’s actions were approved. In fact there is no evidence that the authorities understood what was contained in the shipment at the time.

history, Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

Exploring #Parthenon, Pericles and People with 21st Century Digital Tools

Late last year I attended an international gathering, the 2nd Colloquy on the Parthenon Marbles titled Parthenon an Icon of Global Citizenship. My contribution focused on ways of employing the tool kit of 21st Century digital strategies in teaching about Ancient Greece, and about the Parthenon in particular.

Keynote was the software  I used to produce this work.  Since it’s only partly revealed in the accompanying YouTube video you can access a full version of the presentation here in Google Drive.

My aim was to demonstrate opportunities for Constructivist and Connectivist approaches employing 21st Century digital tools. My curriculum focus was the new Australian National History Curriculum, but this approach can be applied to any systemic or school based curriculum. Augmented reality apps and the opportunities inherent in effective use of Google Drive were highlighted in the second part of the presentation.

At the outset I must declare my bias.  I firmly believe that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece.  They were not legitimately acquired. They have been placed in gallery where they are interpreted in a manner that is unable to acknowledge, or address, their original and dynamic relationship with the entire work from which they were stripped.

Recently the British Museum has been attempting some retrospective justification of this stripping away of the Sculptures’ meaning by applying a new taxonomy. A self-serving exercise this reframes the Parthenon Sculptures as a valuable part of a Universal Museum. Unfortunately, this recent iteration merely imposes a form of imperial taxonomy on the Sculptures and many other exhibits in the BM.

So my work is partisan, but the digital techniques I’ve demonstrated are entirely transferable and might be applied to any area of curriculum.

Here is my presentation. Sorry about the sound quality.