February 11, 2010

Neil MacGregor talks about the Elgin Marbles & Cyrus Cylinder

Posted at 9:56 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

British Museum director, Neil MacGregor has given a talk, mentioning both the Elgin Marbles & the Cyrus Cylinder. He says that the sense of national identity that people get from these pieces is an example of seeing what one wants to see – but surely his own interpretation of the artefacts as part of a global story that can only be told when they are assembled together in the British Museum is far more of a digression from the original significance of these particular artefacts.


British Museum’s Neil MacGregor on the Parthenon marbles and Cyrus cylinder
Tuesday 2 February 2010 22.45 GMT
Charlotte Higgins

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, gave the first of the London Review of Books’ winter lectures, organised to celebrate the ­journal’s 30th birthday. He began by talking about John Dee’s obsidian ­mirror, in which the Elizabethan ­magus could supposedly see angels. That became MacGregor’s metaphor: we look at objects and find in them what we want to see. And so to the ­Parthenon marbles and the Cyrus ­cylinder (a clay cylinder inscribed with a decree from the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great). “A whole nation,” MacGregor said of the marbles, “has decided they embody something ­fundamental about Greek national identity. It is a prime example of ­seeing what you want to see.”

The Cyrus cylinder is of huge ­significance in Iranian, Iraqi and ­Jewish history, and is currently the ­focus of a spot of bother between Iran and the museum. The BM had promised to lend the cylinder to ­Tehran by the end of last year, but the ­recent dramatic discovery in the ­London museum’s stores of fragments of the same inscription (suggesting that the cylinder’s decree was publicly promulgated) has delayed the loan while further research is undertaken. There is also the matter of security amid Iranian instability. MacGregor confirmed the museum’s commitment to send it to Tehran, though without a firm date. “The trustees have said that as soon as it’s safe to go to Tehran, it should go.”

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