If you want to see the Parthenon, you go to the Athenian Acropolis. If you want to see the sculptures, however, you have to go to the British Museum. For two hundred years this has been one of the most visible legacies of the “Age of Imperial Collection.” (Of course nearly every museum has objects collected from others under unequal power relations—“missing pieces” that match “holes” all over the world from which they were taken.)
Last week a colleague of mine in the history department shared an entertaining video that pokes fun at the serious controversy over the ownership and legacy of the Parthenon Sculptures (“Elgin Marbles“). The folks at bringthemback.org are taking advantage of social media to highlight the plight of the architectural elements and sculptures cut from the structures on the Athenian Acropolis at the turn of the 19th century.
In their video a fictional Greek news reporter based in London covers the disappearance of the iconic clock of Big Ben. As she reports, it was taken by greek multi-millionaire Aristotle Elginiadis—a distinguished man wearing a velvet evening jacket and clutching a cigar, who is interviewed in the back yard of his mansion where the clock of big ben is being dusted by a maid. His tone is condescending and dismissive of the reporter’s earnest question, “Do you know where the Big Ben clock is?”
“Of course I do! It’s right behind me! I did this to protect it…Do you know how polluted London is?…Big Ben is a world-famous attraction and it should be treated as such.”
Elginiadis suggests to the reporter, however, that he would be willing to let the British “borrow it for a few days” if they wanted to use it. This is a pitch perfect critique of the position of the British Museum which explains on its website:
“The Trustees [of the British Museum] will consider (subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel) any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned…The Trustees frequently lend objects from the collection to museums all around the world, including Greece.”
The website at Bringthemback.org is well done with lots of interesting resources and information. The video might be useful for showing a museum class as part of a larger discussion of colonial collecting and the repatriation of objects.