London, London, Let Those Sculptures Go!

June 18, Tuesday, 2013

On February 17, March 2011, Dr. Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote a piece for BBC entitled, “Lord Elgin – Savior or Vandal?” The story goes as such: Lord Thomas Elgin, a British ambassador, goes to Athens and takes a great portion of their sculptures from the Parthenon. There has been controversy about these actions from the beginning, and the debate is still hot to this day. Did Lord Elgin get permission to have these sculptures, or did he essentially steal them? Should they be returned to Athens?
The British History Museum argues that these sculptures belong to the whole world; in London, more people have access to seeing these great sculptures. Moreover, it fits into the whole idea of their museum, which shows the evolution of art in Western Culture, and their idea of an Universal Museum even more broadly. Moreover, the museum is free, and The British History Museum claims to have taken better care of the sculptures they have than the ones the Greeks have. London feels that the Elgin Marbles “belong” to them now (because they have been there for around 200 years) just as much, if not more so, than Athens.
The Greeks, on the other hand, have good counter-arguments to all these points. Firstly, they think that Lord Elgin never had permission to take these sculptures. Secondly, they point out that the British History Museum has not taken as good care of them as they claim to have. In fact, quite a few of the sculptures have been mishandled and defaced. Lastly, Greece has museum in Athens that would offer a better contextualization for the sculptures than in the British History Museum.
So who is right? I, being the postcolonial critic I am, feel obligated to side with the Greeks. It is hard for me trust anything that comes from the center of Empire, and who could blame me? I question their motives, and think they stole them. Moreover, I do not think that, just because they have been there for 200 years makes them “theirs now.” I think that it is a pretty silly argument. What if kidnappers used that same logic? I can hear them now, “Well, I mean your child has been locked in my basement for ten years now, and they are just as much my kids as they are yours.” Not one person with a conscience would buy that argument, but this is not really much different. It is no coincidence that many artists compare their work to a child. It is always and forever something they birthed, and something they are indelibly attached to. London needs to hand the sculptures over.
Another point many people make is that if they give the sculptures back to the Greeks, they will have to give tons of things back to many peoples they have plundered from. And what is wrong that? Integrity and honesty matter more to than “pretty museums” with “fitting themes,” and I would like to think that enough people in the world feel the same way as I do, and thus do what it takes to get these marvelous works of art back to their rightful owners.

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