Culture Wars: Past tense

The Elgin Marbles may be in Britain, but their value is universal.

Ian Walker

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Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000

As if the series of rows surrounding the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin Marbles had not caused it problems enough, the museum is currently undergoing a massive building programme. Sections are closed off and familiar routes are altered. So a visitor to the Marbles can easily take a wrong turn and stumble into the Americas gallery: a room full of Aztec and Mayan artefacts. It’s a good mistake to make.

The most striking of these artefacts is a set of carved lintels from the doorway of the Mayan Temple of Yaxchilan. These have figures carved in a manner that flattens the human forms into two dimensions, so they appear as caricatures with features exaggerated and bodies twisted into grotesque shapes. In some of the lintels the figures, which represent the Mayan ruler Lord Shield Jaguar and his wife Lady Roc, are involved in a savage bloodletting ritual, surrounded by creatures from the American jungle – snakes and jaguars – representing the Mayan gods.

The contrast between the Americas gallery and the Elgin Marbles highlights one of the unique strengths of the British Museum. Both the Marbles and the Mayan carvings are from significant temples, and tell us something important about the respective cultures. But the differences are striking. The human forms in the Marbles are more realistic representations, and so have a greater universal appeal than the grotesque caricatures in the Mayan sculptures. There is a significant difference in the representation of nature – the Marbles depict tamed horses being led in a procession, while the pictorial representation of nature in the Mayan imagery shows it to have a cruel and overarching power. The Greek sculptures represent the gods in human form, while in the Mayan sculptures the humans take on the forms of the gods as animals (hence the name Lord Shield Jaguar). In the Greek sculptures the humans and horses emerge from the marble, giving the Marbles a three-dimensional form, in contrast to the grotesque flat imagery from Central America.

However obvious these differences may be, the comparisons can only be drawn because these two sets of stones are housed in the same museum. The contrast will lead the visitor to draw aesthetic and intellectual insights, in a way that cannot be matched if the same insights were described in text or even if shown in photographs. Comparisons and contrasts exist throughout in this unique institution, whether these are in representations of nature, of the human form or of death rituals.

In the ongoing controversy about where the Elgin Marbles should be housed, the idea that Greece has a ‘right’ to the Marbles is as petty and shortsighted as the Little Englander prejudice that only Brits can care properly for these sculptures. Both sides miss the point that the British Museum’s entire collection, as a whole, has a universal value that comes precisely from bringing cultures and histories together. The differences strike you, but more importantly you are confronted by what all the exhibits have in common – the history of humanity. Removing the Marbles – or any other artefacts – would rob the visitor of seeing a particularly powerful example of the works of man within a comprehensive collection built over the past 250 years. This is something that gives a unique benefit to visitors from around the world; to destroy it would benefit nobody.

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000

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