Friday, 18 March 2016

#2: Head of Selene's horse

Head of horse from chariot of Selene, Greek goddess of the moon

This week’s object is a marble horse’s head – one which did a Grexit over 200 years ago when Lord Elgin bought the Parthenon sculptures from the Ottoman Empire (which Greece was then part of), displayed them first at a makeshift gallery in Park Lane and then sold them to the British Museum in 1816. The long-standing debate about whether the sculptures should be returned to Greece reared its head again on Radio Four last month in a discussion stimulated by the publication of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums - And Why They Should Stay There by academic and cultural critic Tiffany Jenkins.

On the programme Jenkins argued that the status quo – half the remaining marbles in Athens, half in the British Museum – was ‘perfect’, since in the British Museum they are in the context of global, not national, culture and this helps us understand them in a way we would not anywhere else. This corresponds with the British Museum’s viewpoint.

Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu contended that museums could be ‘elaborate laundering houses’ for objects taken by colonisers, often in the name of an ideal of science given priority over the mindset of people who made and used the objects. Director of Birmingham Museums Trust Ellen McAdam brought the voice of practical experience, saying that repatriation of museum objects had to be decided on a case-by-case basis; that groups of people often wanted objects from their culture to stay in museums rather than be repatriated, and that the ‘monocultural museum’ was rather dull compared to the encyclopaedic one.

Of course, the debate touches many wider issues such as the purposes of museums, the value of authenticity and how past injustices should be responded to. My own view is that the Elgin Marbles should stay in the British Museum. I agree that objects should not be in monocultural silos and that their expanded relevance in the museum compensates somewhat for their removal. I also feel that it is simplistic to expect present generations to make up for actions of past ones.

But in saying this I am influenced by knowing the marbles myself through repeated visits over the years to that strange long windowless room which turns the Parthenon space inside out by forming a square from parts of the original frieze but with the designs facing inwards, so that we look at the Lapiths and Centaurs face-to-face – and close up. This seems to me as fitting a place for them as the Acropolis Museum in Athens (no one thinks they should be reattached to the Parthenon building itself, now a ruin).

But isn’t something being forgotten here? The objects themselves, the excitement they caused and the revolution they provoked in the way people in the early 19th century thought about art, beauty and the built environment. This is explored surprisingly infrequently compared to the question of their repatriation.

So I will leave the last word to painter Benjamin Haydon who first saw the marbles in 1808 in a ‘critical agony of anxiety’ about his huge painting of heroic Roman soldier Dentatus. The marbles helped him understand how to paint bodies in motion. He wrote later in his autobiography that he ‘saw the muscle showing under one armpit in that instantaneous action of darting out, and left out in the other armpits because not wanted.’ He learnt that ‘the end of the toes are the parts that are press[ed] down, the other joints not, consequently the flesh must rise all up about the nail, and the top of the upper joint keep its form.’ ‘When I saw… the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life,’ he wrote, ‘the thing was done at once and for ever.’

replica of horse’s head on the Parthenon

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