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Laser technology to re-create Elgin Marbles

The British Museum plans to build computer re-constructions of the Elgin Marbles – is this the first step towards having a copy so that they can hand back the originals to where they belong?

From:
The Times [1]

February 05, 2004
Laser technology will recreate Elgin Marbles
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

THE British Museum has ambitious plans to construct a replica of the Elgin Marbles, recreating their original look in painted colours.

Hundreds of fragments of the Parthenon’s sculptures, scattered across ten museums in eight countries, are to be brought together in a computerised mapping exercise that could eventually lead to a physical replica in marble.

Each piece is to be scanned with laser technology that is already being used to recreate sculptures almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

The museum has secured the permission of seven countries for a 3D virtual reconstruction. Outside London and Athens, there are fragments in Rome, Palermo, Paris, Munich, Heidelberg, Würzburg, Copenhagen and Vienna.

Laser technology is accurate to a tenth of a millimetre, a precision no sculptor could achieve. It is already used in Egypt, with the help of British expertise, to replicate ancient tombs and monuments because the originals are too remote or delicate to cope with the millions of tourists who descend on them each year.

Similarly, the Altamira replicas of caves and drawings dating from 18,000BC have become the third most popular tourist attraction in Spain since their completion in 2001.

The British Museum said that the computerised reconstruction would enable them to study and manipulate fragments of sculptures as never before.

Although the project is in its early days, the Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna are among the institutions excited by it. The British Museum said the Greeks had yet to respond.

The project is seen as a dramatic development while Britain continues to resist calls to return the Marbles in time for the Olympics in Athens this year. Britain argues that the Parthenon sculptures were legally acquired in 1816 and remains unmoved by suggestions of a loan or a “British Museum outstation” in Athens.

Experts from the world- leading Conservation Centre at the National Museums of Liverpool have already scanned one of the metopes at the British Museum depicting the battle between the centaurs and the Lapithae.

Laser technology enables the reproduction of an object without touching the original. Light is projected on to it while a camera captures the profile. It reads the surface like a barcode machine. Scanning is, however, a slow and complex operation; the metope has taken three days.

John Larson, head of sculpture and inorganic conservation at the National Museums of Liverpool, said: “Each country could own a complete set of sculptures. This has never been done before. This is a sensible way forward. We have to understand more about the marbles. People forget that we don’t really know what they looked like.”

He emphasised the importance of the laser records, particularly if a sculpture was subsequently damaged. He said: “All the Michelangelos in Italy have now been scanned. We don’t really have detailed information on the Marbles. All we have are photographs, which are a poor substitute.”

But there can only ever be an incomplete reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures. Half of the originals are lost forever, victims of man-made and natural disasters over the past 2,450 years.