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Virtual reality as a route to ending Parthenon Marbles dispute?

Following the recent articles about 3D printing and museums [1], Paul Mason looks at how new technologies could perhaps provide a solution to the long running Parthenon Marbles dispute.

This is not the first time that such a proposal has been made – Something similar [2] was proposed by Neil MacGregor in 2003. The big sticking point though is that while both sides feel that a replica may be a solution for the other side, they want to hold onto the originals themselves.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum [3]

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum

Guardian [4]

Let’s end the row over the Parthenon marbles – with a new kind of museum
Paul Mason
Sunday 15 February 2015 20.00 GMT

In the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a marble statue of the river god Ilissos is displayed in heavily guarded isolation. Purloined by Lord Elgin in 1805, it was loaned to Russia by the British Museum last December, in the face of protests from the Greeks, who want all the Parthenon marbles back. The move was highly controversial. Russia and the EU had imposed mutual sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine, and critics made much of the fact that Brits could move statues to Russia, but Greek farmers could not export peaches there. It was a reminder that the politics of culture is always the politics of physical things.

The 21st-century museum keeper is faced with many voices clamouring for justice: for the return of stolen goods, for recognition of imperialist wrongs, for racial justice and women’s rights. They have offered two broad responses to such claims. The first builds on the “universal museum” principle, outlined by a group of influential directors, in 2004. Their argument is, first, that the present location of treasures such as the Parthenon marbles is, itself, a historical fact to be respected. Since antiquities fertilised the British Enlightenment, they have become part of our national culture. On top of that, they argue that, by maintaining large, free and well–secured collections in metropolitan centres, the “universal museum” gives global access to collections that are global in scope. This argument gained strength after the US military recklessly damaged archaeological sites in Iraq, and then Islamic State fighters overran them.

Their second response is that there is a value in curation: that to shuffle the treasures between museums across the world to create new, temporary, themed exhibitions, spreads access and understanding further than a permanent collection would.

However, the rise of digital technology should allow us to imagine a new kind of museum altogether. The interactive audio guides and digital reconstructions found in some museums should be just the beginning. It is now possible to extend the museum into virtual space so that exhibits become alive, with their own context and complexity. Hard as it is when you are managing a business based on chunks of stone and gold, we should challenge museum curators to think of their primary material as information.

I want to know a lot more about Ilissos than what is on the tiny plaque next to him in the Hermitage. I want to know about the skills of the men who carved him; I want to understand what his musculature says about their view of the human body and the soul within it. On top of that, I want to touch him. Elgin’s workmen originally sought permits to draw, measure and make casts from the masterpieces of the Parthenon: it was a worthy aim, given it was, at the time, a ruin. But on top of their desire to measure, I also suspect they wanted to touch and hold these pieces – to make a physical connection with the Hellenic world they idealised. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – yet the modern museum forbids it.

With virtual-reality headsets and digital recreations, you could have it all. You could walk through the Parthenon as it was in 400BC, and as the mosque it became under the Turks, and as the ruin Elgin found. If we rethink the museum as “information plus things”, then the location of the things becomes negotiable and not so emotive.

By doing this, we would change the entire concept of the “gaze” of the museum visitor. It cannot so easily remain dumb and passive; its imperialism and sexism can be challenged by the exhibits, rather than being reinforced by them.

With technology, we could dispense with the offical catalogue. As well as the official interactive guide to, say, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you could have a feminist one, an anti-modernist one, a Marxist and a neoliberal one. I would, if I had the time, spend several days there with this cacophony of conflicting voices in my ear. People listening to the Trotskyist guide to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera might bump into other people listening to the feminist one, and have arguments, or even fall in love.

Finally, 3D printing could solve the twin problems of touch and location. You could scan the river god and print him in every city in the world. It wouldn’t be the same as the original, but you could touch him: you could rub wet plaster in your fingers and fill the holes and fractures, the way the Athenian sculptor might have. You could take a chisel and finish off his rough edges. You could make new bits to replace those that have fallen off. You could mix some Egyptian blue and other pigments, and paint the colours he might have worn 400 years before Christ. And you could end the row over the Parthenon marbles. In the analogue world, I’ve always had sympathy with the calls to return them to Athens – especially now there’s a stunning new museum to house them. But, as the current Greek government says, they actually belong to the whole world.

With 3D, if you favour keeping them in the 19th-century halls of Bloomsbury, resonating with the 19th-century intellectual traditions they helped to foster, you could print replicas for the Brits and take the real ones to Athens. There, you could fund an alternative, British-curated interactive walkthrough of the Acropolis Museum that explains and justifies why we stole them in the first place.

Paul Mason is economics editor at Channel 4 News. Follow him @paulmasonnews