January 24, 2004

Repatriation of Native American artefacts

Posted at 1:50 pm in Elgin Marbles

Other museums can return artefacts because it is the right thing to do. Could the British Museum not repatriate the Elgin Marbles for the same reason?

Norwich Bulletin

Opinion – Friday, January 23, 2004
Norwich knows to tell British: Return statues
‘Context’ matters here, in Athens

Slater Museum director Vivian Zoe was at Mohegan Sun Thursday to witness the “repatriation” of Native American artifacts originally unearthed at Fort Shantok, where Uncas’ warriors successfully defended the tribe against the Narragansetts in the 17th Century.

Over the centuries, the artifacts had been scattered hither, thither and yon. These ones in particular were returned by the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Litchfield County.

That the artifacts — the most outstanding was a 17th century clay pot, decorated with a herringbone pattern — were returned involves “the critical issue of context,” Zoe said.

In effect, the artifacts make most sense at Mohegan, home of Fort Shantok.

Which brings us, circuitously, to the Elgin Marbles, the marble statues from the Parthenon that Lord Elgin removed in the 19th Century to the British Museum.

The Greeks want the statues back in time for next summer’s Olympics, and you may have seen news reports in recent weeks on the international competition to design a building for the marbles at the foot of the Acropolis.

The winning entry was from U.S. architect Bernard Tachumi. The Parthenon is in the background; the low-slung building in the foreground, with the statues facing forward along the glass-enclosed front.

With a little effort, you can imagine how the Parthenon looked 2,500 years ago.

We care about the Elgin Marbles here in Norwich more than in most American towns because of the stunning collection of replica casts at the Slater Museum. Zoe believes it is the best collection in the world, except for perhaps Oxford.

As it happens, Zoe is trying to ensure the casts are in proper context at the Slater — the context of an idiosyncratic Victorian museum. Ideally, they should be displayed the way they were in 1887 when the casts were unveiled locally.

This spring, Zoe has organized a “charrette,” a scholarly inquiry that should come to some conclusions about the collection.

At the unveiling, Zoe said, heavy red brocade curtains hung in the windows. Perhaps no one would want to replicate that today, but at least the original setting should be understood.

The “charrette” includes art historians and experts ranging from Bill Hosley of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Hartford to Pamela Born of Tufts and Alan Wallach of William and Mary.

If we can understand context, so should the British. If someone hauled away the Statue of Liberty from New York harbor, we would want it back.

Lord Elgin “saved” the marbles by removing them, but that was then and this is now. The British should send the statues back permanently in time for the 2004 Games.

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