Saturday, 20 December 2008

Will Elgin Lose His Marbles?

Yesterday I finally made it to the British Museum. To be frank it wasn't something I really wanted to do. I just needed more to show for my last two weeks of gardening leave than the double digit hours I've so far logged watching the Snooker World Championships and reruns of The Gilmore Girls. Gardening leave is a delightful British concept in which you "work" out your remaining notice period from the comfort of your own home. Being part of the European Union, there are long notice periods -- mine was three months.

So now, after three and half years of living in London, in the eleventh hour of my residence I finally visited the British Museum. Having no particular agenda, I decided to hit the "Don't Miss!" section listed on the museum map. After a failed attempt to find the King of Ife, I made it to the Rosetta stone, then the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs. I stopped to admire the swaying, headless nymphs in the reconstruction of the Nereid Monument, which in my dusty, adolescent memories I had mistaken for the Elgin Marbles. The latter were in the next room, in the middle of which was a stand holding pamphlets that address the controversy of ownership over these Parthenon sculptures. The pamphlet is in the form of an FAQ including answers to questions like "What has the Greek Government asked for?" (A: to have them back, please) and "What is the British Museum's position?" (A: waffle, waffle, "...maximum public benefit," more waffle).

Standing there reading the pamphlet, it occurred to me what a trivializing name the Elgin Marbles is for this group of nearly 2,500 year old Parthenon sculptures. I thought of the man at the wine bar the other night who told me he owned Farmington, as if the village was some kind of shiny bauble, and I could just picture it: a group of guffawing 19th century lords sitting around talking about that eccentric old chap, Elgin, and his marble trifles, picked up while he was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Controversy aside, there's no doubt the Parthenon sculptures are well looked after by the British Museum. I was reminded of this later walking through the Egyptian mummy rooms (it seems most of the contents of the British Museum are something other than British), which are a stark contrast to those in the humid and dusty and charming Cairo Museum I visited last year. There in the room showing off the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen were scribbled notes tacked inside the display cases to explain when a particular piece was on loan. With that kind of filing system would anybody notice if a piece here or there went astray?

On my way out of the British Museum I stopped in the book shop where a hieroglyph edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit caught my eye. It reminded me of the old saying "two countries separated by the same language." Slowly I am learning the tongue of my adopted land, the "Elgin Marbles" decoded after a year of study at that unlikely Rosetta stone, our Cotswold wine bar.

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