October 19, 2009

Imperialism and the Museums It Created

I'll never forget my first summer of travel, back-packing through Europe and the middle East. Everywhere I went and visited museums and ancient sites, many times over I stared at a plaque on a wall or a gap in an edifice in Egypt and Greece especially and thought to myself, "Hey, I saw this thing back in June at the British museum." What is the current status of right of return?

All Things Considered has a great story today on a new museum that has opened in Athens. One primary argument from the British Museum defending the failure to return the Parthenon friezes is that they haven't the fitting place to house them. Well, check out the images of this new museum.

"'Everyone Understands What Is Missing'

The display space is the same dimension and orientation as the Parthenon looming on the Acropolis hill, just 900 feet away. Thanks to wraparound glass windows, the exhibits bask in the same natural light surrounding the original temple, which was built for the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens below.

Britain's Lord Elgin chiseled off roughly half the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon in the early 1800s, when Greece was an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire. Later, he sold them to the British Museum."
It reminds me of the first thing you see when you walk into the Antiquities Museum in Cairo... a replica of the Rosetta Stone.

I understand that it is not a clear-cut issue. But isn't the main issue that an older colonial empire stole these items from their homeland, and in 2009, it's time to return them? Western imperialism and continued profit-making at the expense of middle-eastern nations won't subside without acting on that reality.

If the news of this new museum in Athens is not met with enthusiasm in England, then shame on you.


非凡 said...

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Dave Hag said...

Not to weigh in on the ethical issue of returning things taken from conquered nations, I would like to note that it takes more than a well designed building to properly hold ancient artifacts. I accompanied the first Israeli Egyptology students that were allowed to travel to Egypt from Israel after the Camp David Accord. Sarah Groll was their professor. We went to the Cairo Museum. When a security guard was asked the location of a certain monument (which contained the most ancient reference to Israel (or to Jews, sorry, I forget!), he led them to a stone monument set on the floor beside the aisle. (It was not a well make museum, not was the piece properly displayed.) Dr Sarah Groll read the inscription and pointed out where the word Israel (or Jew) was on the stone. Then we were all aghast as the security guard plucked a piece of chalk from his pocket and marked that word with it.