Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Elgin Marbles

Since Kristen and Dr. Zaius have both expressed their shock at the irresistable cuddliness of the Egyptian statuary at the British Museum, this is clearly the time to bring on the Elgin Marbles.
As many of my readers doubtless know, the Elgin Marbles were originally part of the Parthenon, but were removed between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which ruled Greece at the time). Controversy about the whole thing continues unto this day.
The British Museum takes the view that the Parthenon was already ruinous by 1800, that Lord Elgin obtained permission to removed the statuary, that the world benefits from their having been on public display in London since 1816, and that they would have deteriorated vastly had they been left in place. The Greek government takes the view that its cultural heritage should be returned.
Until I visited the British Museum (a place I feel very fond of), my general sentiment was that both the British Museum and the Greek government had merit to their arguments. I didn't think it had been such a bright idea for Lord Elgin to remove the works in the first place, given that they weren't treated very carefully and some got broken in the process, but I supposed that at least they had been spared the infamous Athens air pollution.
Having now seen the bits and pieces on display in London, my attitude is considerably changed.

While I suppose the sculptures are spared the air pollution, and it is hardly the British Museum's fault that Lord Elgin removed them in the first place, I found myself getting very upset. All of this statuary was designed as part of a temple (one considered to be one of the most perfectly designed structures in the world, let's recall). The sculptural program was not merely decorative but also narrative.

What we have now is a collection of broken free-standing statues (no longer in much relationship to one another except when directly attached) and a large number of sawed-up squares of bas-relief. These are not mounted in a manner that in any way suggests the nature of the original structure. Everything seems utterly devoid of context. It's highly depressing.

I grant that the British Museum does, in a separate area, show plaster casts that were done before quite so much damage had occurred, and presents a computer simulation of aspects of the building. This did not, however, change my feelings about the removal.
I am not saying that the time would not have come to remove the statuary for its own protection, but I really object to the way everything was just sawed up. One would like to think that removal in 1900 or 1950 would have been somewhat more skillful than the 1801-1805 effort. Then again, who knows. During the 1930s the British Museum, led by I know not what strange impulse, went at the statues with wire brushes, which caused further damage. One would think that this would not have seemed a viable option by that time.
I was surprised, however, to see how much paint still remains on some areas of the statues, despite efforts by now-deceased British enthusiasts to render them pure white. Greek statuary was generally polychrome, not white, but time and devotees of the all-white look have had their way with most of it.
Whether the statuary is better off in London or Greece at this point is hard to say, but it has definitely had a hard life over the past 200 years.



Blogger Kristen said...

Yeah, while I was happy to get a chance to see them, the whole context is pretty depressing. Wire brushes!

April 11, 2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

Clearly these statues have become infatuated with the glamour and fame of museum life. I think that it is safe to say that many of them have even lost their heads.

April 13, 2007 6:42 AM  

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