The news wires have been buzzing over the past eighteen months as pressure mounts on the world’s so-called ‘universal museums’ to return objects acquired during the colonial era. Even French president Emanuel Macron has stepped into the fray, vowing to return French museum collections of ethnographic material to their African countries of origin.
Barely a day goes by without the Museum Security Network delivering into our inboxes further reports of these increasingly toxic culture wars.
The British Museum is not immune from this pressure thanks to its continuing retention of the Parthenon Marbles, looted from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812.
One way the British Museum tries to deflect attention from the Marbles controversy is to build exhibitions around them that seek to sever them from their original connection to the Parthenon. This is the barely submerged subtext to its current show entitled ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece.’
It’s a beautiful exhibition that throws fresh light on the French sculptor’s work and I do not wish to be mealy-mouthed about it. But I have issues. The title could just as easily have been: ‘Rodin and the Parthenon Marbles,’ but perhaps that would have been too blunt and provocative, so a subtler strategy was deployed.