A Study of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum
At the beginning of the 19th century, British Ambassador Lord Elgin traveled to Athens in an effort to preserve the crumbling sculptures on the facade of the towering Parthenon temple. At the time, the Acropolis was in ruins as a result of centuries of war and misuse of the temples. This meant that Elgin’s acquisition of the frieze sculptures and their removal from Greece to England seemed appropriate, as it was a cause of preservation. Over the next two centuries, the sculptures have been presented in the British Museum, most recently in a palatial gallery dedicated to the presentation of both the sculptures and the Museum’s lengthy explanation as to why its ownership is necessary. These texts line the walls, maintaining a propagandistic program that is unavoidable by museum visitors:
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world-wide public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over two million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.1
In the past few decades, Athens has fought back for its rights to the Parthenon sculptures. Claiming an advancement in both general museum practice and conservation capabilities, the Acropolis Museum has the capacity to maintain the relief sculptures that were taken away from them (arguably rightfully at the time, but now not so much).
During my time in London, one of my priorities was to see these highly debated sculptures. They have centered in my museum study and I had thought them to be the most scandalous works in museum acquisition history. When I entered the Parthenon galleries, I was incredibly underwhelmed. While the galleries are impressive and address the issues surrounding the Frieze acquisition, it was difficult to separate my unrealistic expectations with the reality of the space. For instance, because I saw them as these incredibly debated objects, I guess I expected them to be actively debated amongst the visitors. What I saw was exactly the opposite. I felt exactly as I do in the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors have become so accustomed to survey museums that they do not think twice about the representation of different cultures in the galleries and how these objects may have entered into the space. These mixed feelings led me to question the role of the visitor in museum debates.
How does the viewer get involved in this debate of ownership? Is one acting unethically when visiting the galleries and actively contributing to the museum’s program? It is impossible for the individual visitor to have a grand sweeping impact on either the maintenance of the British Galleries or a return of the sculptures to Athens, but that does not mean that he or she should not be engaged in the dialogue of the ethics of artifact appropriation in museums worldwide. The uneasiness that one feels upon the realization of the sculptures’ history with Lord Elgin can be mirrored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Louvre, and hundred of other museums big and small. The sculptures open a can of worms that can break down the entire structure of survey museums and the role they play in bringing different cultures to the general public. If we argue that the Friezes should return to Athens, does that mean that every Greek Sculpture, every Chinese scroll, and every Nigerian mask must return to its location of origin?
As the museum world continues to grapple with this ongoing debate, visitors can do one thing: acknowledge the dialogue between cultures and develop an understanding of the differences between the museum setting and an object’s original context. Survey museums are not closing their doors anytime soon, but with increasing self reflection, museum administrators are looking for ways to reconcile the injustices that their predecessors carried out with the modern visitors’ expectations to see and experience all the world’s cultures under one roof.