Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Continuing Controversy of the Elgin Marbles

During last semester's introduction to archaeology course, one of the last few things we learned about were the Elgin Marbles, which are sculptures/friezes originally belonging to the walls of the Parthenon in Greece, but which were removed by a British diplomat and now reside in the British Museum. It's a difficult case seeing as both sides seem to have fairly valid points. On the one hand, they technically should belong to the Greeks. They're asking for them back and feel that they weren't taken with their true consent. They would like these sculptures to be placed with the rest as they tell a story that can only be read when both pieces are together. The British argued that they were obtained legally and that it gave those who were unable to travel to Greece a chance to see at least one part of the Parthenon. They also argued that they were being well cared for in the museum and that being susceptible to the elements of the Parthenon, they would surely fall into poor condition over time. However, Greece has upped its care of the Parthenon and has opened the new Acropolis Museum (perhaps in response) in order to better care for their art and artifacts. I can surely understand the point that the British Museum is trying to make because they're also using the "well, if we give these back we might have to give everything back!" excuse. However, I don't think that everyone will be asking for all of their belongings back (although if they were, wouldn't that be a big mess in the museum world!) Cultural repatriation is a much more complicated issue than say the repatriation of human remains (which I feel transcends debate - people should have the right to bury their dead in the way they see fit, even if some science and history might get lost along the way.) 

I'll keep following the story of the Elgin Marbles, although I don't really see them going back. Personally, I think I feel for the Greeks. It's not like people will stop going to the British Museum all together because of a few (albeit important) statues going back.

Anyway, the point of this was to note that NPR interviewed author Christopher Hitchens on the story and he definitely had some valid points for the Greeks. Check it out if you feel so inclined!

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