The case of the Parthenon Marbles has been simmering away for decades. Every now and then an event occurs which prompts the Greeks to half-heartedly drag it forward onto the media front burner. For a few weeks everyone watches it let off steam until it gradually slides onto the back burner again.
The last time the Marbles issue moved up the news agenda was in 2003, just prior to the Olympic Games in Athens. But thanks to British Museum intransigence (it was also the BM’s 250th anniversary) the Greek appeals came to nothing. Now the temperature has risen once again due to the planned opening later this year (or more likely early next) of the new €94 million Bernard Tschumi-designed Acropolis Museum (above left).
But don’t expect any significant movement on this issue. Why? Because although global thinking on museums and cultural heritage has moved into a progressive new phase, the British Museum remains marooned in the eighteenth century, manacled to an anachronistic and misguided notion of the ‘Universal Museum’.
The UNESCO conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin, held at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens on May 17-18, which I attended, successfully swerved around the most controversial repatriation issue of all — the Parthenon Marbles. Why no single paper addressed the subject directly remains a mystery. I was invited to give a paper and offered to speak on the ethical questions raised by the renaissance of the Universal Museum as a category, but this was rejected. I therefore attended merely as a visitor. In the event it was left to strategically-placed agents provocateurs among delegates to keep the topic of the Marbles (and the Universal Museum for that matter) in focus through awkward questions to the panellists throughout the two days.
But while leading members of UNESCO, (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), ICOM (International Council of Museums), cultural heritage lawyers, archaeologists, diplomats, journalists, and representatives of source communities were all in Athens agreeing a rock-solid consensus on, (among other things): the need to respect the human rights of others; a willingness to enter into negotiations without preconditions; adherence to ethical standards in museum practice and cultural diplomacy; compliance with new codes of practice for the antiquities trade; and the removal of legal impediments when museums decide to return objects, the British Museum was busily blockading itself into its Enlightenment bunker over in Bloomsbury.
Yesterday USA Today published a piece by Jeffrey Stinson (Greece to Britain: Hand over artwork) which quoted the British Museum’s Press Officer, Hannah Boulton, to the effect that, “Our position hasn’t changed.” The presence of the Marbles in London, Ms Boulton told Stinson, allows the British Museum to “tell a much broader story” of man’s cultural development than if they were shown in Athens with other Greek works of art. In short, then, “they won’t be going back to Greece.”
I know Hannah Boulton as a charming and highly capable press officer, but the Parthenon Marbles are now too critical an issue in global cultural heritage to be treated with pat press office references to “broader stories”. But to be fair to Ms Boulton, she is merely ventriloquizing her employer, as every press officer is paid to do.
“The life of these objects [the Parthenon Marbles] as part of the story of the Parthenon is over,” British Museum Director Neil MacGregor remarked some months ago. “They can’t go back to the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.”
No statement by a leading museum director more clearly illustrates the epistemological crisis confronting museums in the twenty-first century. The core function of the universal museum as the purveyor of authoritative historical narratives, once thought unassailable and beyond criticism, is now being challenged on a range of different fronts.
As Sharon MacDonald and Roger Silverstone have observed, “[The] museums are engaged in a struggle for a new legitimacy: for the high ground of public display, and for the rights of representation of objects, ideas and narratives.” (Macdonald, S. & Silverstone, R., ‘Rewriting the museum’s fictions: Taxonomies, stories and readers’ in Boswell, D. & Evans, J. Representing the Nation: A Reader: Histories, heritage and museums, Routledge, 1999, p422.)
The authority claimed by the British Museum, to write the ‘other story’ of the Parthenon Marbles, whatever that may be — and more pointedly, by extension, to comprehensively negate or deny their place within the story of the building to which they properly belong — is part of an evolutionary process of instruction and education that began in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century but which is now out of date and irrelevant.
For much of their time at the British Museum the Parthenon Marbles have been located in the Duveen Galleries (left), a gloomy suite of rooms purpose-built in the 1930s with £150,000 donated by the art dealer Joseph Duveen. Controversial from the start, the Duveen Galleries seem to have been designed specifically to reinforce the attempts made by archaeologists John Beazley, Donald Robertson and Bernard Ashmole exactly ten years before to divest the Marbles of any remaining connection to the building from which they originate. (Jenkins, Ian, Archaeologists and Aesthetes, British Museum Press, 1992, p225.)
Recently, the British Museum has once again embarked upon a programmatic scheme to sever the Parthenon Marbles, both historically and conceptually, from their origins. Their new identity, the ‘other story’ now assigned to them, juxtaposes the Marbles with other objects in the British Museum’s collections in order to relocate them within an arbitrary stylistic progression, the significance of which is entirely predicated upon their remaining in Bloomsbury, as though they would cease to be comprehensible if located anywhere else. This is hogwash.
“In the British Museum the visitor can see how the achievement of fifth-century Athens could not have been created without the civilizations of Egypt and Assyria, and indeed the great enemy, Persia,” wrote Neil MacGregor recently. “But it is perhaps only in the British Museum that the full measure of the Greek achievement can be grasped. Walking through the galleries you can see how the Greek reinvention of the human form changed sculpture from Turkey to India, as well as providing the visual vocabulary for the entire Roman Empire.”
This ideal visitor, endowed with a sufficiently sophisticated visual awareness to grasp the finer nuances of formal stylistic development across cultures, is a myth propagated by museum curators out of touch with their audience.
In fact, the evidence would suggest that such art historical subtleties are beyond the average visitor. As Louvre Director
enri Loyrette told a conference at the British Museum, “Most of our displays mean nothing to people.” Indeed, a survey of Louvre visitors revealed that 67% of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period. (‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, The Guardian, 27th November 2003.)
Towards the end of the recent Athens conference, and perhaps invigorated by Italy’s muscular legalistic approach to cultural heritage repatriation, Chris Price of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles rose to his feet and inquired whether it might now be time for the Greeks to consider litigation against the British Museum in an effort to regain their cultural birthright. He may also have been inspired by the words of Professor Norman Palmer who reminded conference that the law can often be so effective it can make other perfectly workable forms of approach seem redundant.
On current evidence it would seem that the consensus arrived at in Athens among the world’s leading cultural organisations on the need to enter negotiations without preconditions, to respect the human rights of others, to avoid the impoverishment of other nations’ cultural heritage, etc., is not shared by the British Museum, which manifestly operates under a different code of ethics.
I wish he were not, but I suspect Chris Price may be right. Perhaps it’s time the Greeks took the gloves off.