August 10, 2009

A proposed solution for the Elgin Marbles problem

Posted at 12:35 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The solution to the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures suggested in this article is actually not that did-similar to the idea outlined by Evangelos Venizelos, the culture minister under the previous PASOK government.

The Independent

Boyd Tonkin: ‘Prudent people tend to hold their tongues when they’re with a journalist’
Tales of the City
Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Two cities, two museums, and two starkly opposed ideas of cultural values and how to present them. Last weekend, on a suitably monsoon-like summer afternoon, I savoured the mind-bending colour and design of the royal paintings from Jodhpur at the British Museum’s Garden and Cosmos exhibition. These truly fabulous visions, lent by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, have never been beyond India before. But when it comes to captions for mystically-inspired artworks that illustrate the doctrines of the Nath sect of gurus, the BM’s admirable relativism about differing belief systems shoots off the scale. Visitors are informed with a straight face that the Nath holy men of two centuries ago appealed to Rajasthani rulers because of their powers (for instance) to end droughts and burn down rival cities. (Thanks to the practice of hatha yoga, they also claimed the secrets of immortality.) No giggling at the back, now. Luckily, this spellbinding art can tell its own far more credible story.

A fortnight earlier, in Athens, I visited the institution that probably wishes it could burn the BM down by force of will just now: the airy new Acropolis Museum. In the circular row over the fate of Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, the BM claims its Greek antagonists portray the temple and its sculptures as a purely local achievement rather than relating it to the art of Egypt, Persia or Assyria. That’s largely true: in Athens, few multicultural comparisons dim the glory that was Greece.

Yet this is a beautiful and satisfying space, full of light and grace, with the missing sections of sculpture hauntingly represented by plaster casts next to the real thing as the Parthenon itself looms beyond the vast windows of the top-floor gallery. For the moment, entry costs a single euro and the shady terrace café serves the best-value snacks and drinks in town.

My solution to the stand-off between London and Athens would, I hope, tickle the Sophists who used to ply their logic-chopping trade in the ancient Agora nearby. The authorities in Bloomsbury should cede their claims to ownership and repatriate the marbles. But the Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon gallery would in turn become Room 18 of the British Museum – with, if required, a culturally diverse display to gladden Neil MacGregor’s heart. So Lord Elgin’s loot would simultaneously be back in Greece for keeps, and still on display in the BM. The Sophists had a bad press, but I kind of like their style.

John Walsh is away

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1 Comment »

  1. Dr Selby Whittingham said,

    08.13.09 at 4:58 am

    This solution overlooks the fact that the new museum in Athens is designed to show the art of the Parthenon, not the art of the world. The question should be – not what the British Museum wants, but what most of the public wants. The British Museum has never produced evidence to show that the public wants all museums to cover world culture rather than a specific topic. The number of visitors to some specialist museums suggest that Neil MacGregor and co do not have public opinion on their side.

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