Friday, 25 January 2008

The Marbles of Elgin

The British Museum is a treasure trove spanning across cultures and centuries and it can take weeks to visit even a half of the rooms, let alone come to grips with the stories therein. Here is the story of British trade routes and agreements, British exploration and British colonisation.

However I have a favourite room: that of the Elgin Marbles.

Recently I read a version of their history, the story of the Elgins' diplomatic position in Istanbul and how with their friendship with the ruler were able to receive permission to record, rescue and retrieve many of the important stones from the Parthenon before they were damaged forever from the weather and neglect at the hands of the Greeks. This book tried to assure that good intentions had been an underlying cause, the Elgins' classic education meaning they despaired of seeing such craftsmanship and history fall to rack and ruin. However one can't help but note that had not his lordship's increasing debt stood in the way, the stones would undoubtedly have remained in private hands, classic antiques being de rigueur among the educated upper classes.

It was only after, discussing Hellenic culture with an Hellene that I was fortunate enough to hear the other side, the story of the Parthenon's continual function and continual place in the hearts of the Athenian people. Even then this edifice, along with the acropolis on which it stands which has been the symbol of their city for two thousand years, was damaged and destroyed at the hands of others: Turks who stored gunpowder within, and Venetians who aimed mortar fire in that direction, blowing a hole in the southern side of the monument.

Perhaps it is time for the marbles to be returned, to reclaim their place in the avenue of sculpture that stares out at the Acropolis from behind the safety of glass walls. Time for tourists to gain an encompassing view of the majesty of this history, without the subtle reminders that half the story lies tied up on the other side of Europe.
But perhaps it's only where it rests now, in a side gallery of the British Museum, that it can remind people of the dying power of the British Empire and the power this once great nation lorded over the known world.

But for now, I am happy to make a detour every time I'm in London.  Not because this room contains stunning statues of mythical beings poised with grace and rendered with skill and finesse. Not because they hail from the classical world, a tangible part of the zenith of Athenian society as mentioned in Herodotus' History of the Ancient World. Or even that they remind me of my travels in Greece.

The reason is simply because of the delightful innocence of a dear friend.
She's heard all about the Elgin Marbles, if not from her own readings and historical backgrounds, then from the endless prattle I'd subjected her to over our own Grand Tour. However interpretation can play funny tricks and what she expected to see was not the collection of classical figures carved in marble before her, but instead a giant collection of polished spheres... like one would expect to find in a school boy's pocket.

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