The currents of that artificial network swept us next from the upper floors to the ground where we drifted between fragments of the Parthenon. We made a full inspection of the pediments, metopes and friezes which depicted scenes from Greek mythology and a contemporary religious procession, the intelligibility of which varied, for the viewer, the level of conservation of the piece. While some had largely retained their original, clear-cut appearance, more had faded with the years, weathering and handling, into a soft focus not unlike that seen in early photographs.
Perhaps more than the display, the controversy to which the museum documentation alluded held my attention. For the depth of the issues surrounding the pieces’ ownership astounded all the more when one took into account the battery of arguments, long prepared and refined by the Museum, to counter every aspect of the polemic. It represented either decades of accumulated work or that of one singularly thorough clerk.
To charges of theft, the Museum responded that Lord Elgin had acquired the pieces through legal channels in the early years of the 19th century and by leave of the proper authorities, the Ottomans, though their status as occupiers remained unaddressed. The subsequent transfer of those pieces to the British Museum had likewise established the museum’s trustees as owners, leaving the government as stakeholders unable to dictate to the former, whatever the outside pressures. Any such decision necessarily fell to the rightful owners.
To calls for return to the site, the museum recalled that the most damage had resulted from parties other than Lord Elgin and laborers and cited such parties as: the Venetians and Ottomans responsible for the powder keg episode of 1687; Nikolaos Balanos and his botched 1920’s restoration with the use of steel staples and rods; Athenians for their part in citywide atmospheric pollution; finally, acts of god given the likelihood of earthquakes in the region . All pointed, for the Museum’s trustees, to the same natural conclusion that the pieces could not be restored to an unprotected ruin, structurally incapable of bearing their combined weight and at risk from geological activity.
To claims for redress, the museum noted that it had always acted in good faith. It had not authorized the cleaning of 1938 with wirebrush and chisels and had sent those responsible on their way in the follow-up. The institution had, in the same way, provided a proper display space for the fragments, secure, modern and safe from the elements. Lastly, those fragments would be no closer to their original home in an Athenian Parthenon museum than they were in this one, through which millions passed: artificial museum lighting would still stand in for the natural light of the Mediterranean.
If the museum had had to go to such rhetorical lengths against polemic, it suggested in and of itself that its opponents might have a case of one kind or another. Then again, quantity of contentions does not warrant the quality of those same contentions. Still, it gave me to wonder whether museums worldwide would not be brought to return old holdings and new purchases alike to their original contexts in the face of mounting claims to their restoration. Perhaps the thought proved further beyond my powers of comprehension than I would have guessed, for I experienced a touch of sadness, bittersweet, at the thought that museums, cultural conquerors, would be swept free of alterity and the other and become mere monuments to the tribal.
This half-formed thought, more felt than formulated, stayed with me as I admired a Greek with shield bent beneath the blow of an Amazon in the midst of a frieze removed from Halicarnassus and its long since ruined mausoleum.