This article looks at a lot of interesting aspects in a period of the life of the Parthenon Sculptures that is often glossed over. After they first arrived in Britain, some time elapsed before they were finally purchased by the British government. As this article explains, during this time, Elgin did everything he could to try & raise the profile of them & hype them up (after declaring them as of “little or no value” for customs purposes.
I am not sure about some of the conclusions however – I don’t know whether anyone really believed that they were taking the Marbles for their protection. This was more a justification that was post rationalised, because it sounded so much more palatable to the public, than the reality of taking them to decorate a house. Later, the same argument appealed to the British Museum, when in reality, they were most interested in adding a significant work to their collection & thus stopping anyone else from getting it.
View of Parthenon Frieze by Alma Tadema
The Parthenon Marbles and British national identity
Fiona Rose-Greenland 25 October 2013
Today, the British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon sculptures are “integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement.” But what does history tell us?
This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick in September, 2012. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols – symbols which appeal to people and instill in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.
But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains. (XII)
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d! (XV)
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Second Canto (1812)
What is happening with the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles and widely lauded as the jewel in the crown of the British Museum?
When the new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens in June 2009, the British Museum faced unprecedented pressure to return the sculptures to Greece. Intellectuals, elected officials, and ordinary citizens weighed in, with public opinion apparently in favour of giving them back. It looked as though Museum officials might finally relent. The issue was back on the public agenda in June 2012, in a repatriation debate between Stephen Fry and MP Tristram Hunt, and again this month in a speech by Henry Porter in which he urged that returning the sculptures would be the right thing to do.
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