After Brexit, Britain may finally lose its Marbles — specifically the ones they stole from Greece

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/02/19/after-brexit-britain-may-fina.html

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I wonder at what point the pilfered artifacts become more historically linked to the pilferers than the original owners? To be clear, whatever that point is has most definitely NOT been reached by items taken by the British Empire and I think the items should be returned post-haste, but what about stuff like the Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column in Istanbul? What about Egyptian artifacts taken to Italy after the Roman conquest?

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Yay!

Coincidentally, I was looking at the Parthenon Marbles in the BM less than 24 hours ago, having visited the Acropolis and its dedicated museum in Athens a month ago.
And I can’t see any justification for the friezes, metopes and pediment sculptures to remain in London.

  • They’re the decoration of a single building, comprising four continuous artworks. It makes no sense for fragments of those compositions to be held elsewhere.
  • The Acropolis Museum has casts of most of the pieces in the BM. I’m sure they’d let the BM display the casts after the originals are returned, so the BM can still exhibit the shapes, just not the stones.

I’m actually in favour of the BM displaying artefacts from the Acropolis, on a basis of long loan from Greece (chosen by agreement, with Greece having final say); I just think the parts of the Parthenon artworks should be reunified.

That goes for the Erechtheion caryatids, too (Athens has five, London displays the cherrypicked sixth).
It would be great for the BM to have a cast, not least because of their influence on British architecture (e.g. ‘new’ St. Pancras’ church), but the group of six really ought to be shown together, in their dedicated room in the Acropolis Museum. In the BM, the stolen sister isn’t even particularly easy to find.

Whilst we were in the BM, we passed Hoa Hakananai’a too: another hostage of the UK’s waning status.

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I don’t think either Greece nor the UK cares that much about where the Parthenon Marbles are; neither the British Museum nor the Acropolis would see much difference in footfall either way (especially because whichever one doesn’t have the originals will have casts that look identical). I mean, there are no doubt zealots on both sides, but overall governments don’t want to spend much energy on this stuff per se.

From time to time there will be some extradition issue, or some UN thing, and one country or the other might find it useful to defrost this kind of low-stakes but high-profile dispute as a lever. In pragmatic terms, on any given day, they probably both have more use for the ongoing argument than for its eventual resolution.

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One of the excuses for not returning Greece’s cultural patrimony to Greece was that the sculptures were “too fragile” to move. That hypocrisy was exposed when the British Museum sent some of the works to other countries for display.

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do unto greeks…

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I don’t think that’s accurate. Greece really does seem to want to reunite the compositions - it’s not just abstract political leverage.

Depends what you mean by “cares that much”. No, it’s not a matter of war, but nor is it a matter only of interest to “zealots”.

No, they don’t. Deliberately.

Another is that the BM could protect and conserve them better than Greece, which has been proved untrue. Despite cherrypicking the best pieces, the fragments held in the BM are in worse state than at home, due to schoolboy vandalism and totally inept curation in the 1930s.
[The marble used on the Acropolis naturally weathers to a honey colour. The BM scrubbed away the surface - and carved detail - to get back to a ‘pristine’ white which had probably faded even before the Parthenon was built.]

Incidentally, I made a point of studying how the dispute was portrayed by the Acropolis Museum and the BM; that was one of the reasons I went back yesterday. If there was propaganda in Athens, it was so subtle that the only impression I came away with was that they’ve been remarkably dignified about it all. The BM, on the other hand, comes across as arrogant and patronising: they even claim the Parthenon Museum “thus completed a process begin by Lord Elgin” (that’s verbatim).

ETA: The BM self-justification also claims that loans to temporary exhibitions “aim to illuminate not only the classical Greek achievement, but also its impact on the world.”
All very credible, but:

  • The Acropolis Museum could do that just as well as the BM.
  • Who made the BM the designated custodian of world culture? And how can it still claim that?
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I’m pretty sure the BM has its own casts, thank you very much. We don’t want to get rid of those nasty foreign marbles only to get nasty, cheap foreign copies. We’ll make our own British Brexit copies. BAAAH!

/sarcasm.

No, no. Wrong lesson entirely. The lesson is that if things don’t go well after you’ve thrown your tantrum, you should throw a bigger tantrum and keep escalating until everything goes your way. Alternatively (and better for the blood pressure - I mean Boris can’t be too healthy in the cholesterol department), just keep insisting that everything is going exactly as you intended.

As the last election showed all the British electorate want is a PM who can deliver Hugh Grant’s post McCutcheon/Thornton kiss speech from Love Actually while giving a decent impression that he actually believes it. (But not actually Hugh Grant obvs.)

The V&A does have a room full of plaster copies of classical statues, etc. so they certainly could keep essentially identical copies if they wanted.

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Oh, absolutely. Sorry; I was conflating two points to mangle a third!

The Acropolis Museum’s casts are a different colour, to clarify which are the copies. If, as I speculated, the BM got those, they wouldn’t be the ‘right’ colour (but the BM seemed to like over-whitened ones anyway…).

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“The BM”, otherwise known as The Museum of We Raped and Pillaged Across the Globe to Steal Other People’s Stuff and Threw it on Display Sans Any Context.

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Well, yeah, it’s what empires do, pretty much by definition isn’t it? They conquer folks and take their stuff and do lots of unpleasant things to the conquered in the process. The British Empire is only notable in its recency, not in anything it did or how they did it. The Romans, the Ottomans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Spanish, the Macedonians, and a hundred others all did the same thing, with hundreds of millions of innocent people bearing the cost of Empire.

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I would say 800 years is in that range. Look at a certain basilica in Venice which has a fair amount of loot taken from Constantinople. I can certainly think of older examples (Egyptian obelisks in Rome); there are probably newer examples, but I am not as good with this new-fangled modern history.

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Post Brexit, things that are on the table in trade deals:

  • The NHS
  • Food safety
  • Colonial plunder such as the Parthenon statuary
  • or Gibraltar
  • Workers' rights
  • British emigrants in Europe's rights to healthcare etc.

    an incomplete list. The EU is there to represent its members’ interests, its members no longer have an interest in some elements of the status quo such as Gibraltar and the plunder.

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    Unlike the Louvre (where I was on Monday :wink: ), or the Pergammon, or the Met? As @DrNobelDynamite said, that’s far from uniquely British.

    And I don’t agree about the alleged total lack of context, if you’re suggesting that’s the current situation. Originally, yes, the ‘great museums’ were totally just treasure chests, but less so nowadays.

    Just for the record :wink: I am a fan of the British Museum (and the others mentioned), petrochemical sponsorships and all, but I don’t support its claim to be a pan-cultural guardian, and some - some - of its collection ought to be repatriated.
    I’d start with anything sacred to a current culture and fragments of larger structures/artworks. However, I wouldn’t support wholesale return of anything originally non-British (or non-French, non-German, non-American, in those other cases).

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    Politically speaking, the Elgin marbles did a lot to create interest in Greece in Britain and create political support for the Greek war of independence. So I don’t think this theft was a bad thing for Greece, overall.

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    Nice deflection. I am describing a museum. Feel free to contrast with other museums.

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    I do agree with the lack of context at the BM. Sure the Sutton Hoo exhibit is well curated but the trinket rooms, the Orientalist rooms, etc. are basically loot vaults without the most basic information on their contents.

    Contrast with SF MOMA or the Exploratorium, Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Portland Art Musem, etc. I totes agree about the Louvre (I am looking at you mummified cats!), and surely others. Doesn’t mean I am not going to call out the institutional glorification of rape and pillage.

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    The Parthenon was a mosque for a bit.

    Does Islam get to lay claim to anything ?

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    So what should the EU nations steal from the UK to promote a supportive attitude to the forthcoming UK / EU trade deal?
    Each member state get a piece of the stone henge?

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