Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tin-pot propaganda at the British Museum

[Originally posted at NOW]

"One thing is certain" - except it's not (NOW/Alex Rowell)
The British tendency to understatement is a virtue rivalled only by an equal and opposite vice of euphemism. The difficulty outsiders often have in distinguishing between the two can cause a great deal of confusion: of innocent self-deprecating humor with gloom, in the former case; and of serious malice with wit or genteel decorum, in the latter. The resulting losses in translation can be costly: one British brigadier in the Korean War, believing that describing his troops’ situation over the radio as “a bit sticky” would adequately convey their total encirclement by Chinese Communists, had the misfortune of having an American interlocutor, who interpreted him as saying all was basically well, and thus failed to send the reinforcements that might have averted the slaughter and capture of hundreds of the British men.

With such rich and various – but comparatively subtle – means of deception, it’s rare to catch British officialdom uttering an outright, demonstrable lie. Which is why it was so arresting for me to read the information panels at the Parthenon marbles display in the British Museum last week. While initially contenting themselves with describing the 19th century disfigurement and theft, by our own ‘Lord’ Elgin, of the finest surviving monument of all antiquity as a “matter for discussion” – a truly magnificent euphemism, trivializing the plunder of Socrates’ Athens to the level of tea-table chatter – the curators then waded overconfidently into the terrain of plain falsehood:

“Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution.”

That is one way of putting it. But consider, if only for “discussion’s” sake, some of the other ways. Here, for instance, is how Edward Daniel Clarke, an eyewitness to Elgin’s conduct, described a day on the job*:

“After a short time spent in examining the several parts of the temple, one of the workmen came to inform Don Battista that they were then going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs; but the workmen endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the projected line of descent, a part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble, scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins […]”

Nor was this sort of thing uncommon. Take Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian subordinate of Elgin’s, reporting a mishap encountered in making off with a section of the eastern frieze:

“Not being well-sawn, for want of sufficiently fine saws, and being a little weak in the middle it parted in two in course of transport […] Happily it broke in the middle, in a straight line, at a place where there was no work, so that the accident has helped us to transport it quickly […]”

Then there was the time Elgin quite literally lost his marbles at sea, when the Mentor, a ship he had bought for the purpose of carrying the loot back to his house in Scotland (only after he later ran into money problems did he contemplate selling them to the government), sank in the Mediterranean. It was only with what Christopher Hitchens described as “enormous labour on the part of local fisherman” that the stones were eventually recovered.

So far from delivering the masterpiece of Phidias from vandalism, then, it’s obvious that Elgin was himself the principal vandal. But were the marbles, at least, secure once they passed out of His Lordship’s clumsy mitts into the curators’ assiduous custody?

Not according to a 1938 entry in the minutes of the British Museum Standing Committee titled, ‘Damage to Sculpture of the Parthenon,’ in which it is quietly admitted that years of systematic ill-maintenance in Bloomsbury have resulted in “great damage” to several “important pieces,” likely arising from the alarming practice of brushing them all with copper wire.

You really couldn’t make it up, which is why I was unable to stop myself from blurting out loud, while reading the information panel (see above photo), that it was “the sheerest propaganda.” When I did, I was heartened to hear a laugh from a European woman behind me, who had evidently been reading along with much the same thought in mind. How much longer will the British government refuse to accept the Greek request for restitution, and persist in what is not only a moral disgrace and national embarrassment, but an object of mockery and contempt from visitors?

* This and other quotes taken from Christopher Hitchens’ The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification

No comments:

Post a Comment