Today I was in need of some inspiration and creative stimulus, so took myself off to the British Museum. I haven’t darkened its doors in years and wanted to see the Parthenon Marbles – I’m ashamed to say I haven’t visited since schooldays.
First off they are very beautiful and very impressive. However the frequent labels below the body parts stating “head in Athens” or “torso in Athens” highlights the insanity of keeping these marbles away from their rightful place and appropriate context. It seems to be a form of cultural vandalism – why on earth keep the head and body of the same statue apart? It defies belief. I’m not going to restate the case for restitution – I don’t feel qualified to do that when it has been far better articulated by countless scholars, including my own brother who has done a lot of work for the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.
No, my main gripe is that I didn’t feel any sense in the way they were displayed of what they really meant or how they would have looked. For example these were originally brightly painted statues – nowhere could I see any visual reference to that – other than a couple of lines of text on the rather dull flipchart-like posters in the ante rooms.
I also felt ambivalent about everything else I saw in today’s brief visit. It all felt a bit too vainglorious. Maybe I find the concept of the universal museum a difficult one to swallow. It feels too diluted, diverse, unfocused, worthy and reminiscent of school trips and the days of the unchallenged hegemony of Pax Britannica.
I’ve never been to the New Acropolis Museum – it was not yet open last time I was in Athens so I can’t make a comparison. I did however spend a very happy afternoon wandering awe-struck around the National Archeological Museum there, gaping at the beauty of the sculptures. It’s completely dedicated to Greek classical civilization and just makes so much more contextual sense. I am not sure that looking at the Rosetta Stone a few minutes before examining the Greek marbles does anything to increase my enlightenment or understanding of either. But then I’m just a punter not a scholar.
You may wonder what classical Greek sculptures have to do with 1930s India or 1920s Australia – but that’s for another post!