The Parthenon Marbles, British Museum

Friday 25 April 2014

I love visiting the British Museum. It has a beautiful array of artefacts from so many cultures, is stuffed to the brim with history and information and learning. It's an ideal place to spend a spare half an hour wandering in the corridors, but equally it's easy to get completely lost for hours (and it'd take days to get through the museum properly). I had a day to myself a couple of weeks ago and decided to take myself out to have a couple of hours at the museum with my camera. 

It was absolutely packed, so instead of jostling through the Egyptian galleries to try and get a look at the mummies in their cases, I headed down to the large wing housing the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles. They're some of the most talked-about sculptures in the British Museum, and on the museum scene in general - mainly because they were taken from Greece, and have so far been refused return to them - despite the fact that the New Acropolis Museum has been built and currently holds plaster casts of the sculptures it could potentially hold. It was a controversial subject even at the time of their removal from the Parthenon and surrounding buildings in 1801-1812, and remains contentious to this day. Many consider Elgin's actions to be a kind of vandalism, and I must say I'm inclined to agree. Last year at university I studied the Romantic poets, and came across poems from both Keats and Byron which address the Marbles - Keats was struck by their awesome nature, but Byron was almost furious at their removal, writing in his poem 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' that the walls were 'defaced', the 'hapless bosom' of the Parthenon 'gored', the sculptures 'snatch'd' by Elgin.

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

(Keats, 'On Seeing the Elgin Marbles')

Many people were and still are inspired by the beauty of the sculptures, and certainly many have only been able to see them since their display at the British Museum - but does that mean they 'belong' to us? I don't think so. For many years they were displayed almost without comment, no acknowledgement of the history surrounding them, and a lot of people I talk to aren't at all aware of their history. It's interesting to see that now the British Museum has leaflets addressing the issues with the sculptures remaining in the Museum, even if they are there to defend the current stance of the Museum and seemingly to legitimise their original removal. The British Museum might legally 'own' the marbles, but what right do we really have to them? Britain often has a nasty habit of ignoring its colonial history, seemingly believing that 'finder's keepers' is a legitimate rule to follow. As much as I love the Museum, and am thrilled to have seen such beautiful sculptures, I don't believe we have a moral right to keep the sculptures from the culture that they originate from, particularly when the legality of their removal was questionable in the first place.

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