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The cheekiness of the British Museum

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If you took something that didn’t belong to you and sold it to fill your pockets, at the very least, you’d agree that such behavior was lacking in good manners, wouldn’t you?

The stolen items in question are the 253 Elgin Marbles that cash-poor Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, removed from the Parthenon in Greece more than a century and a half ago and sold to the British Museum. I mention this now because of something British Museum archivist Stephanie Alder recently discovered in the basement world of the museum’s Central Archive - a rule of etiquette that goes like this:

“It was expected that visitors to the Museum ‘be decent and orderly in their Appearance and Behaviour’, and the officers on duty were instructed to refuse admission anyone who disregarded this rule.”

Apparently good behavior was exacted only of visitors to the museum, not the ruling class. A parliamentary Select Committee vindicated Lord Elgin of his conduct and ever since, museum officials have refused to return the sculptures, reportedly the museum’s most treasured holding.

The long-running reason for not returning the sculptures was that the Greeks didn’t care enough to take proper care of them. Never mind that part of Lord Elgin’s cache was shipwrecked in transit and divers didn’t recover the marbles until three years later.

And never mind that Greece’s new 226,000-square-foot, $200 million state-of-the-art museum at the base of the Acropolis answers the charge of neglect.

Never mind, too, that Lord Elgin used these looted marbles to decorate his mansion in Scotland before selling them to the British Museum.

Also never mind that the British Museum has acknowledged that the marbles were damaged by its “heavy handed” cleaning.

The museum’s refusal to return the vandalized marbles can be seen on its website in 2009:

“The British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon Sculptures are integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement. Here Greece’s cultural links with the other great civilizations of the ancient world, especially Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Rome, can be clearly seen, and the vital contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements in Europe, Asia, and Africa can be followed and understood. The current division of the surviving sculptures between museums in eight countries, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture. This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that gives maximum public benefit for the world at large and affirms the universal nature of the Greek legacy.”

In other words, even though the marbles are made in Greece for a Greek temple by a Greek sculptor, and even though the new Acropolis Museum can show the marbles as part of the structure from where they originated, the Brits know better how to represent Greece.

Cheeky, no?

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