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What Do Museums Represent in the 21st Century?

Museums are the institutional embodiment of the historical practice that to the victor go the spoils. More recently, the return of select artifacts is intended to set things right, but it’s complicated.

Black and white image of the entrance to the British Museum.
Founded in 1753, the British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum, and one of Clay’s favorite haunts. Its vast collection includes artifacts that may not belong there — and some are returning to their places of origin. (flickr/ Jose Manuel Candelario)
In London last week I ventured to the British Museum to spend some time in the Enlightenment Room, home to an amazing array of artifacts that characterize “the long 18th century” — globes, sextants, maps, telescopes, pressed plant collections, mammoth and mastodon bones. What I principally wanted to see was the Orrery — a tabletop planetarium so ingenious, with its clock-like precision in charting the motions of the planets and moons, that it takes your breath away.

The British Museum was founded in 1753. It houses 8 million objects, tens of thousands on display at any given time. The Rosetta Stone is there. Two statues from Easter Island are there. The famous Egyptian cat mummies are there. Artifacts from Captain James Cook’s three voyages are there. It’s endless in every direction.

By now I suppose I have been to the British Museum 20 times over the years. It’s one of the world’s wonders, perhaps civilization’s principal repository of things gathered up from all over the planet during a time when that seemed like the right thing to do. If you think about the old truism — “the sun never sets on the British Empire” — the British Museum is the warehouse where the imperialists stashed the things they took from all the interesting places and peoples they visited. Depending on your point of view, the word “took” can be replaced by such other terms as purchased, borrowed, appropriated, stole and looted, and “visited” can be replaced by conquered, occupied, and colonized.

The Return of the Parthenon Marbles


The ruins of the Parthenon covered in scaffolding.
The ruins of the Parthenon and ground zero in the fight to repatriate its namesake marbles. (Flickr/ Faddoush Tarawneh)
I have never visited the British Museum without giving an hour to the Parthenon Marbles, formerly known as the Elgin Marbles. The marbles are sculptures (mostly fragments) removed from the Acropolis in Athens and from the Parthenon itself and relocated in Great Britain in the second decade of the 19th century.

The Parthenon was built in the fifth century BCE (between 447-438 BCE) in the Age of Pericles. It is a rectangular marble temple, 228 feet long, 101 wide, with eight Doric columns on each end, and 17 Doric columns along each side (for a total of 50). Each end features a triangular pediment supporting statues that tell the story of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The east pediment depicts the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. The west pediment depicts the triumph of Athena over Poseidon for the right to be the protector of Athens. Many of those marbles were appropriated by Lord Elgin.

A Rough Go


Over the centuries, the great temple to Athena has had what the British call “a rough go.” First it was converted into a Christian church, then an Islamic Mosque with a minaret at its southwest corner. It has been repeatedly damaged by earthquakes. During the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War (1684-1699) the Turkish military forces used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On Sept. 26, 1687, an explosion of the gunpowder severely damaged the Parthenon, blowing out most of its central portion. Three of the inner building’s four walls collapsed, and over half of the sculptures from the frieze fell. Several hundred people were killed.

At that point, with the great building essentially in ruins, local contractors began to gather up whatever they could carry away to repurpose in other structures, or sell, or burn for lime for other building projects. During the darkest days of World War II, the Parthenon was made to support a Nazi swastika flag. As the cultural critic Christopher Hitchens put it, “A pagan shrine, a church, a mosque, an arms dump, a monument to Nazi profanity, and a target for promiscuous collectors of all kinds. . . it is a wonder that the Parthenon still stands.”

And yet, there it is, gleaming in white on the Acropolis, arguably the most beautiful building (or most beautiful ruin) in the world, an expression of the civilization of Athens at its height, perhaps the world’s only perfect epitome of order and harmony expressed in stone.

Enter the Imperial British in the Age of Enlightenment


A drawing of Lord Elgin.
Lord Elgin, purchaser of the marbles at the British Museum. (Flickr/jimkillock)
At this point, Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin (1766-1841), the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, walks onto the stage of cultural history. The Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey, occupied the Greek peninsula for nearly 400 years, from 1460 to the 1820s, when Greece finally achieved political independence. As a lover of Greek antiquities, Ambassador Elgin’s initial intention was to employ artists to draw the sculptures and take plaster casts, but he soon began to order whatever he could get his hands on hauled away and shipped to Britain. At some point during this project, his workmen began plucking marbles off the intact parts of the temple. Some marbles were broken in the process. Altogether between 1801 and 1812, agents of Lord Elgin wrenched about half of the surviving sculptures from the exterior walls of the Parthenon. If this isn’t the definition of looting, what is?

Whether Elgin had legal permission to remove the sculptures is a hotly debated question. He insisted that he had obtained an official decree from the central government of the Ottoman Empire, but that document has never been located. Lord Elgin may have been operating under an informal “agreement” with local Ottoman authorities, some of whom had little or no respect for ancient Greek culture.

At first, Elgin intended the marbles to grace his private residence in Scotland, but a costly divorce caused him to find a buyer in order to settle his extensive debts. Eventually, he sold what he had to the British government for 35,000 pounds sterling. The marbles have been on display at the British Museum since 1817.

Even at the time of the looting, some British commentators questioned Elgin’s right to dismantle some parts of the Parthenon and cart away anything he considered valuable. The poet and passionate Greek advocate Lord Byron called Lord Elgin’s actions vandalism.

The Case for Repatriation


It’s easy to understand why Greece wants its priceless marble sculptures back. It was the occupying Turks who let the Parthenon be looted. It’s hard to believe that if Lord Elgin had approached native Greek political leaders — after Greek independence in 1832 — that he would have been permitted to carry away integral parts of the greatest structure of Greek history, one of the greatest structures of human history. Would they have permitted Lord Elgin to partly dismantle what was left of the Parthenon after all of its troubles, the temple of Athena in her home city, where much of western civilization took its shape?

How serious is Greece? Extremely. In 2009 Athens unveiled a state-of-the-art museum built specifically to house the marbles when they are — inevitably, I believe — returned. Greece has no intention to affix the marbles to the Parthenon itself. The temple will be preserved forever as a stately ruin. The museum already displays the panels of the Parthenon frieze that somehow survived Lord Elgin’s plucking, surrounded by temporary plaster casts that will be retired when their authentic marble cousins in London come back and take their place.

The British Museum understands the justice of returning the Parthenon Marbles, of course. The problem with the repatriation is that this really is a prime example of that overused cliché, “a slippery slope.” If the museum returns the Parthenon sculptures, what about the hundreds of Greek vases in the collection? What about Egyptian sarcophagi? What about the Rosetta Stone? What about the two great mysterious Moai statues from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), thought to be the “living faces” of the sculptors’ ancestors? What about those Egyptian cat mummies? And on, infinitum.

So far the British Museum has resisted calls for the return of the marbles. A spokesman for the British Museum, Hannah Boulton, firmly rejected the idea of repatriation in 2019. “They are now museum objects,” she argued. “They are objects of world art. And as such, there is no problem in terms of them being divided between two different museums and telling two different, but complementary, stories.” Would she have made the same argument if the United States or Russia had appropriated pieces of Stonehenge at a time when Britain was in disarray?

A more recent spokesman for the museum has said, “We will loan the sculptures, as we do many other objects, to those who wish to display them to the public around the world, provided they will look after them and return them.” This is doubly cringe-worthy: both for the colonialist concern about whether they would be looked after and the irony of the nation that stole them worrying about whether, once borrowed, they would be returned!

A Solution Using Emerging Technologies


Given the amazing scanning technologies of our time, the museum can soften the blow by making incredibly high-resolution three-dimensional scans of the marbles, every one of them, and then fashioning same-size replicas. This could be done in acrylic for a relatively modest price. It could also be done in marble at much greater expense. The replicas would be so faithful that it would be nearly impossible to tell that they were derivatives. I know I would feel a little crestfallen when I walk into the British Museum and encounter replicas instead of the Athenian originals, but aesthetically they would be nearly identical, and I reckon that I would feel a measure of pride and a sense of justice in knowing that they have returned to their proper home. Sometimes the world finds a way to sort things out.

This sort of repatriation is inevitably problematic. If you returned everything in the British Museum to the sites from which it was appropriated — looted, purchased, “borrowed,” stolen, or captured in war — the vast complex would be nearly empty. The idea of a museum is to bring things together under one roof, where they can be conserved, interpreted and clustered with other similar artifacts, and to provide an array of interesting and curious objects from beyond the ZIP code of the host institution. Every museum is in some sense “colonialist.” Every museum bespeaks power and domination.

Daniel Hollow Horn Bear, photographed in 1900.
Daniel Hollow Horn Bear, photographed in 1900, wearing the shirt formerly in the collection of the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt. (firstpeople.us)
The slope may appear slippery, but perhaps it is not so threatening as it might seem. The Parthenon Marbles represent a special case. The Greek government has formally asked for their return. That is not true of the great majority of objects in the British Museum. Although the return of the Parthenon Marbles would invite a long series of similar requests, most of the museum’s 8 million artifacts would undoubtedly remain in London.

Repatriation is now common in the museum world. The Weltkulturen Museum of Frankfurt, Germany, recently returned the leather shirt of Lakota chief Daniel Hollow Horn Bear to his grandson. The Brooklyn Museum in New York has returned approximately 1,300 pre-Columbian artifacts to Costa Rica. The National Gallery of Australia has agreed to return more than a dozen Asian objects to India. And the United States has declared that it will return some 17,000 objects to Iraq, most of them looted during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, including a 3,500-year-old clay tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest extant works of literature in the world.



You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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