Them marbles (I'm losing them?)

So, the new Acropolis Museum opens today. It seems like as good a time as any to articulate my position on the Parthenon Marbles repatriation debate. That 'holy cow' of museology. In short...

I really couldn't care less.

I visited them once at the British Museum: was completely nonplussed and came away feeling kind of 'meh'. I have no desire to repeat the experience.

New Curator triggered this bout of apathy with his recent 'revisionist' post. The trouble is that I used to, like the good museum studies student I once was (now I'm just a bad museologist, bad to the bone), share that knee-jerk, pro-repatriation position that most of us seem to buy into at some time or another. But when I really tried to think about the issue this week, I realised that keep them, send them away, whatever. I really don't care.

I'm not personally invested in the issue. I'm not Greek. I'm not an archaeologist or a classicist. I've never been to the Acropolis. I don't work for the British Museum, or the Greek tourist board.

I have a lingering, vague, detached academic interest in the wider political (dare I say nationalist, propagandist?) implications of the debate. But that's it.

Is this the museological equivalent as coming out as a global warming denier?


J said…
I was reading and contemplating about this yesterday, too. I think the whole "let's reunite the marbles because they belong together" argument is bullshit. If I were a better art historian, I would remember the names of at least some of the countless pieces of medieval altarpieces that have been split up - one museum has the outer wings, one has the inner bits or the base, and neither are in the cathedrals where they belonged...

There's a great story about a cross in the Metropolitan Museum of Art which had been separated from its Jesus, now in Oslo:
And guess what? The crucifix is English, one of the masterpieces of early medieval art ever created there, and is it in England? Will Oslo or New York get their acts together and give it back? No. And no one is shouting about how it was unethically looted in the first place, either.

I remember a few years ago (2003, if memory serves), I attended a lecture by a well-known pop-Classicist historian (who I won't name), who basically pulled a terribly upper-middle-class British thing of "let's be gentlemen and play fair and return the marbles." His argument was that other countries repatriate looted goods, and so should the BM. Except the example he gave was that Canada has returned all its looted Native artefacts. Well, obviously, I set him straight on that (Canadian museums tend to say the same thing as the BM has to Greece: "you ignorant backwards Aboriginals don't know how to take care of your own stuff, so until you build a museum according to our standards, you can't have your own stuff back"), and suddenly, he didn't have a leg to stand on.

Art and its provenance is a dirty business. The problem is that although people might idealistically like to think that culture is this terribly clean, pure, prestigious thing, cultural capital causes art to be and become a commodity - of course it's traded, of course it's invested with all sorts of political, social, and cultural meanings, and of course it becomes controversial.

In a cynical way, I think this is going to be one of those patrimony issues like the Arab-Jewish struggle in the Middle East - it's not even about the objects so much any more, its about who said what when, and unravelling that Gordian knot of accusations, responsibilities, and legal rights is an impossible task.
Ceri said…
I am trying very hard to have an opinion because it a very important debate however I am permenently swinging between giving them back and leaving them in the British Museum only because they have been there long enough now to be established as an integral part of the museum itself, part of the fabric so to speak. Whilst I am not sure that returning the marbles would lead to a rush of claims on other items (there is enough junk displayed in museums already for instance), perhaps leaving them in the BM says more about colonialisation and conquest than it would do to return them - reminding us in Britain that our history is not one of fair play and 'gentlemanly' activity as the establishment would have us believe but one of rapacious grabbing of land and money across the world... which is epitomised today in the grubby activities of MPs.

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