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Anthony Badami ’11: Arguing against Elginism

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Opinions Columnist
Thursday, September 16, 2010

The view of Athens from atop the Acropolis, more accurately known as the Citadel of Athens, is heart-stirring and breathtaking. The matrix of bleached-white stone which comprises the city below provides an impressive foreground, while the surrounding cerulean sea is pleasant and welcoming in comparison, a description proven even more appropriate as the city’s furthest points seem to submerge into the shimmering water. Eyeing the bay, it is as if you are watching a shower of minute diamonds drizzle into an undulating azure pool. All of these wondrous components taken together have the effect of rendering the scene cinema-like. It is truly a view worth seeking.

Unfortunately, much of the cultural and political accompaniments to this surreal scenery are either ruined or relocated or both. Through centuries of pillaging, theft, tribal conflict and religious warfare, a significant portion of Athenian classical art and architecture has been ransacked and stolen.

There is much discussion surrounding the idea of who should be held accountable for this legacy of destruction. I decided to take part in this conversation this past July when I traveled to Athens to witness the wreckage myself. My focal point for the journey was a particularly salient and controversial set of pieces known as the Elgin Marbles. Captured by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, in the late 18th century, the 92 original pieces depict either a festival for the Goddess Athena or a story in which man and beast, human and god, celebrate an Athenian victory in the period of Pericles. Regardless, the Parthenon frieze is the exemplar of the High Classical style and a monumentally beautiful piece.

I had ventured to London just a few days earlier, and I had the opportunity to see the single largest collection of these Parthenon sculptures in the world. A stale pamphlet distributed nearby provided the rationale for keeping the display housed in the British Museum. I wish to respond to that, and some other arguments, here.

First, the Museum claims that the sculptures are a component of “everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.” But what makes the British Museum the bastion of such cosmopolitanism? Why not, then, move the sculptures to New York, or China, or India, for that matter, where more viewers may frequent the display?

In this instance, transcendence seems to be, at best, an empty euphemism for Anglo superiority. Does the British Museum have better facilities? Does a museum with a large collection by definition have the legitimate right to whichever historical artifacts it chooses? To the second, of course they do not. It would be absurd to think that cultural theft is redeemed only by the circumstance that such theft is abundant.  

The slippery slope argument (“If these sculptures were returned then the Museum would have to return every artifact”) does not apply either. The Byzantines or the Babylonians are no longer around to make similar claims, nor are hundreds of other looted ancient civilizations. But the Athenians have kept this claim alive and well, and one should not put too much stock in logical fallacies.

To the first question, though, the British have had some foundation upon which to rest their case. For a long while, Athens did not have adequate facilities to maintain the Parthenon sculptures. Indeed, had the pieces been kept on Greek soil for the last century or so, there is little doubt that they would have suffered significant degradation and decay.

However, as I can personally attest, since the christening of the sparkling new Acropolis Museum, Athens is more than equipped to house its historical sculptures. As I made my way through this sparkling, sleek and super-modern repository, I was awed by the immaculate exhibitions, efficient staff and security, and the artful, minimalist décor. It blew the Greek Antiquities section of the British Museum out of the water.

In this situation, we must not make the best the enemy of the good. In other words, a little bit of good can be done towards rectifying a historical injustice; though we cannot correct all historical inequities and exploitation, it is still worth pursuing those minor misdeeds that can be resolved.    

When I arrived at the few pieces of the frieze on show, I sighed deeply and paced quickly through it. I tried with great difficulty to transplant mentally the London exhibition of the marbles, but I was too discouraged to configure in my mind a reasonable image. I remember reading a cancer-stricken Christopher Hitchens compare this travesty to the Mona Lisa being sawed in half. I can tell you the comparison is suitable.

Thus, I add my two cents to the discussion, and I encourage the British Museum to take due steps as quickly as possible to return the stones. There is no longer any excuse for such negligent conduct.  

Anthony Badami ’11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at anthony_badami (at) brown.edu.

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