April 6, 2006

To survive in splendid isolation, or to be lost forever in their native environs

Posted at 8:40 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Indian journalist Ramesh Seth ponders on the fate of rare antiquities & what is the best option for them – should the be taken & isolated within a museum, or should they remain where they always were, possibly to be forgotten forever. The problem with this construct though, is that in reality each story is far more complex than this. we are led to believe that pieces were unappreciated in their native context, but was this truly the case, or were they being appreciated in a different way that was not understood by those who rescued them? Surely if one truly wanted to act as a preservationist, the first option would be to alert the owners or government of the country where the artefacts were found to their importance – to highlight why they ought to be preserved. Only if they were ignored at this stage & destruction was continuing should pieces actually be removed & even then only with agreement by their owners. Unfortunately, the original acquisitions leading to today’s restitution cases never (that I am aware of) happened in this way. More often they are stories of confusion, subterfuge, bribes & fraudulent representations on the part of the acquisitors.

Economic Times, India

Marble marvels: Elgin Marbles
[THURSDAY, APRIL 06, 2006 12:10:51 AM]

Strolling through the marbles gallery of British Museum, you will surely wonder at the creative output of
the Periclean Athens.

IT’S now cheaper to fly to London than Kochi — and there are more flights too! No wonder so many of us hoof it to the former first city of the British Empire when the mercury rises in India.

The usual problem is, what to do when there. See the sights, naturally, you would say.

Well, looking beyond Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, etc what else? I’d say, the British Museum, or more specicfally, the famed Elgin Marbles.

The Elgin Marbles, a magnificent collection of ancient Greek statues were removed from Parthenon and are on display there. Of course they are a bone (stone?) of contention between the British and the Greeks at present, but then so is the Kohinoor between us and our ex colonial masters. That doesn’t stop us from ogling the diamond at the Tower, does it?

The Elgin Marbles have a very interesting history.

Under Pericles, Athens was rebuilt in the fifth century BC. The Athenians had built Parthenon, a magnificent temple for Athena at the Acropolis and Pericles collected the artists to build Athens once again.

This temple was decorated with long marble friezes outside and numerous statues inside. Collectively they were an paralleled collection of sculpture of the time.

During a visit to London, I went to see the fabled marbles. And it was a piquant exercise as the main facade of the British Museum is also built on the same lines as the Parthenon, based on the ancient principle of Golden Rectangle. And the Elgin marble treasures are housed in a special gallery.

Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the early 19th century. At that time many portions of Europe were under the Ottomans, including Greece.

He was looking for some Greek art to decorate the house he was building in Scotland. At that time Athens had lost its old glory, and was little more than a village with desolation all around. It was then that Lord Elgin saw the Parthenon in abandoned and forlorn condition. Anyone could carry off any of the marble treasures lying unprotected.

He obtained permission from the contemporary Turkish rulers of Greece and stripped the Parthenon as much as he could and, during 1801-1805, shipped the statues of the Parthenon frieze to England.

Talk about art heists! Elgin took about half of the Parthenon frieze and some other sculptures. In order to take the frieze, Elgin had to get workmen to saw the frieze off the building. It also involved destroying parts of the building in order to lower the sculptures to the ground. Ironically, now the world now knows those Parthenon treasures as the Elgin Marbles.

Interestingly, ever since he made off with the marbles, things went very badly for Elgin. He found himself so short of money that he decided to sell the Parthenon Marbles to the British government.

And they have stayed in the British Museum ever since then. The flip side is that while Elgin might have damaged the Parthenon and stolen the marbles, he may have also saved them for posterity. Left in the Parthenon they may have met a worse fate at the hands of a less besotted collector-thief.

As I walked into the gallery with those magnificent marbles displayed all around I wondered at the creative output of the Periclean Athens. A group of marble workers created statues of such lasting beauty which has never been equalled.

In a room next to the Elgin Marble, I saw the Rosetta Stone which unraveled the civilization of ancient Egypt. Which begs the question – what is best for rare antiquities?

To survive in splendid isolation or be lost forever in their native environs? Indians should ponder on that conundrum in the context of our own national heritage when they visit the British museum and see the Elgin marbles.

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