After the rediscovery of the Parthenon following years of neglect from an explosion during the Turco-Venetian War of 1687, British aristocrat Lord Elgin, appointed as British envoy to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinope, instructed his agents in the removal of the building’s sculpture. Leaving behind the West section of the frieze, forty metopes on the northern, eastern and western sides, two free-standing figures on the West pediment and components unintentionally overlooked as they were buried deep beneath Acropolis bedrock. In 1816 due to sheer financial pressure, Elgin negotiated the sale of the Marbles to the British Parliament. Since the British museum’s acquisition of the sculptures, nearly 190 years ago, one of the world’s longest running debates has existed; whether the Elgin Marbles should be reunited with the remaining Parthenon sculptures at the Acropolis museum in Athens, Greece or should remain in the British Museum in London? The controversy resides in a contest between the universal and the local and the conflicting but “mirror-like” agendas of the opposing side.
The removal of the Parthenon sculpture by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century was undoubtedly vandalistic. The detachment of the frieze-blocks were impossible without first removing the cornices and other architecture elements responsible for holdings up the ceilings and roof of the Parthenon. Elgin was prepared to sacrifice these components with no hesitation, as he and his men resorted to the use of saws to gain access to the sculpture and reduce the weight of the sculpted blocks. They simply removed the cornice by dashing it to pieces, dropping the ruins to the ground below, leaving the remaining sculpture with greater exposure to the natural elements for the next two centuries. There is clear documentation that Lord Elgin’s motivations were purely self-serving, as he initially sought out the marbles to use as decoration for a Neo-Classical mansion he commissioned at the family seat at Broomhall in Fife. Only once the cost of transportation vastly exceeded Elgin’s expectations, did he negotiate the sell of the marbles to the British government in 1816.
Although the legality of Elgin’s original acquisition of the Marbles is questionable, The British Museum has had valid legal ownership of the Marbles since Parliament’s purchase of them from Lord Elgin nearly 190 years ago, and the Museum has had no intentions of retuning them to Athens. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015 spoke of the equal division of the Parthenon Marbles between the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum as a ‘happy accident’ explaining, “They can be seen both in their Athens context and here, where they can be seen against the sweep of the whole of human history.. Each is valuable.”1 The main argument for keeping the Marbles in London is the benefits of having these treasures on display alongside works of other civilizations, exhibiting the sculptures in a context of world cultures, where millions of people and scholars can study and appreciate them. Claim to retention resides in the Marble’s central place in world culture. European Museums hold ‘an extraordinary repository of the high points of human achievement across many different cultures,’2 and before the marbles acquisition, greek sculpture was weakly represented in the British Museum’s collection. Current Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer claims the Marbles as part of European history itself stating, ‘The rediscovery [of The Parthenon, 1687] is obviously part of European history.”3 Fischer believes The Parthenon ‘tells different stories’ which at various times throughout history served a variety of purposes such as a temple of Athena, a Christian church and a mosque, adding to the debate that the sculptures were no more made for the Acropolis Museum than they were for the British Museum. For the Greek and Roman Department of the British Museum, the marbles have become subject of detailed scholarly research embedded deep into British cultural consciousness and uprooting the Elgin Marbles would be devastating as the Trustees of the museum say the “marbles are the very jewel in their crown.”4 The repatriation of the Marbles would be robbing the British Museum and international publics of their display as a monument of Ancient Greece among universal world cultures.
The conflicting but ‘mirror-like’ agenda of The Acropolis Museum, in Athens stresses the local over the universal as it is “the most natural understanding of the word ‘context’ in connection with the Marbles.”5 The main scholarly approach, for art historians and archaeologists alike, is to study the original context of deposition of an object, and investigate the original design as a whole. In the case of the Elgin Marbles that means reuniting the architecture of the Parthenon with its sculpture. The British Museum has taken steps in detaching the Marbles from their architectural setting by exhibiting the Marbles inside-out, disregarding their original context. Professor Mary Beard author of, ‘The Parthenon’ states, “The real trick of the arrangement is to present the Elgin Marbles as if they were a complete set... In order to bring this off, [the display] must effectively dismantle the original shape and layout of the sculpture as it was on the temple.”6 British press and public often refer to the marbles as “statues,” or independent works of art though this was not their intended purpose. The Marbles themselves were built into the Parthenon, not just as decoration, but functioned to keep the ceilings up. There are very few architectural components ripped from living buildings and exhibited in any other major Museum collection. Since the first recorded request for their return in 1835, the Greeks have contributed their feelings for the Parthenon to national identity and a majority of the Greek population share the hope of the Marbles return. The Parthenon is a national icon appearing on postage stamps, coins and currency. Primary school education includes lessons on the Parthenon and field trips to the Acropolis. The Greeks argument for the Marbles return centers on their place in the presentation of Greek history to their own public. More concerned with the actual pieces of stone, quarried just ten miles from Athens on Mount Pendell, than the cultural benefits of the prearranged ‘universal’ selection of civilizations on display at the British Museum.Which some see as a way of putting not only ancient but modern Greeks in their place. The Greeks would much rather take care of there own heritage, and believe the best solution is reunited the Marbles and exhibiting them in full view of the original Parthenon from the New Acropolis Museum, an ode to the Parthenon.
The New Acropolis Museum founded in 2003 opened to the public in June 2008 and houses more than 4,250 objects found on the rock and surrounding slopes of Acropolis, Athens. Its top floor was designed to permit visitors the chance to view the Parthenon sculptures up close, against the backdrop of the Acropolis itself. On display is the remaining Parthenon architectural components and sculpture with blanks left for the missing Marbles. If returned the sculptures would be restored to their correct, outward-facing positions, reunited with the West Pediment. Greek President, Prokopis Pavlopoulos found an ally in its campaign to bring the Marbles home in President Xi Jinping, of China as they too have had pieces of artistic heritage fall into foreign hands.While touring the Acropolis Museum he made remarks in support of the Marbles repatriation. While some question the potential costs of moving the Marbles to Athens, Greeks would pay anything to get them back, the last Greek government offering to never ask for the return of anything else from Greek land in the British Museum. In 2018, The Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin (ICPRCP) met at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and for the first time, released a statement taking a stance on the highly debated topic that acknowledged the arguments of both sides. The committee called on both side to “find a mutually acceptable solution to this long-standing issue.”7 In a 2019 interview with the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer stated that ‘the government would have to rewrite laws in order to return the sculptures because their legal owners are the British Museum’s trustees.’8 There is currently no active discussion between the British Museum and Greek officials.
I one hundred percent support the reunification of the Elgin Marbles with the Parthenon sculpture at the Acropolis Museum. Like most archaeologists and scholars I believe the study of an object’s original conception is most beneficial in understanding its original meaning. Having nearly all surviving artifacts in one location is crucial, especially the Elgin marbles, which served as architectural components built into the monument itself rather than detached works of art. The way in which the British Museum has arranged the Elgin Marbles is insulting to their original presentation and the argument of ‘universal’ reach is pointless if historically inaccurate, in which the display is. There has been a number of uncontroversial repatriations through history such as the fragment of Sphinx’s beard and the Stone of Scone, and pressure on museums to return artifacts acquired under colonial rule is increasing, including support of, Leader of UK’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn who promised to reunite the marbles if elected Prime Minister. Currently only one-quarter of the British Museum’s attendance includes the Marbles in their visit and opinion polls show 81% of the British population is in favor of the Marbles return. The majority of the British public, and possible elected officials understand the importance of returning theses treasures, so why are the trustees of the British Museum still holding them hostage? While researching this heated debate I kept in mind the three questions Tiffany Jenkins asks in, Keeping Their Marble, that should govern where significant artifacts should be kept, “What is best for the objects, for scholars and for the public? Where are they best cared for and displayed? How do they best serve the development of scholarly Knowledge and public interest?”9 The reunification of the Marbles to Athens is the answer to these questions, as it is the most historically accurate way of displaying the Parthenon sculpture, allowing for the study of its original conception in its intended context on the Acropolis.
1Snodgrass, A. (2004), “What do the Parthenon Sculptures embody? Working Papers in Art and Design 3”
2Earle, W. (2018) “Why the British Museum Should Keep the Elgin Marbles?”
3Rea, N. (2019), “The British Museum Says It Will Never Return the Elgin Marbles, Defending Their Removal as a ‘Creative Act’”
4Snodgrass, A. (2004), “What do the Parthenon Sculptures embody? Working Papers in Art and Design 3”
5Snodgrass, A. (1997), “THE ADVANTAGES OF REUNITING THE LONDON AND ATHENS MARBLES”
7 Ana, M. (2018), “UNESCO Committee Discusses Return of Parthenon Marbles in Paris”
8Rea, N. (2019), “The British Museum Says It Will Never Return the Elgin Marbles, Defending Their Removal as a ‘Creative Act’”
9Earle, W. (2018) “Why the British Museum Should Keep the Elgin Marbles?”
Brief History on Systematic Racism within Art Institutions: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 Exhibition at de Young
From left to right: “Early Works #25: Self-portrait” by Faith Ringgold, “Carousel Change” by Sam Gilliam, “Blood (Donald Formey)” by Barkley Hendricks, “Unite” by Barbara Jones-Hogu, “Fred Hampton’s Door 2” by Dana C. Chandler, and “Non-Violence” by Mike Henderson as part of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963- 1983” at the de Young Museum. Aubrey Davis/ aubrey-annedavis.com)
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is an internationally acclaimed exhibition organized by the Tate Modern of London that celebrates the work of Black American artists in the two pivotal decades following 1963. During this period the Civil Rights movement was sparking conversations about race and identity, highlighting national politics, and social constructs. This exhibition features over 60 African American artists from 1963-1983 who articulated their calls for black power through artwork promoting cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment all while addressing profound questions such as, what is ‘Black Art?,” where it should be exhibited, and the choice of addressing the black community or an universal audience. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, was exhibited at the de Young Museum from November 9, 2019 through March 15, 2020 with a focus on artists honoring the legacy of Black Power in the San Francisco Bay Area including musicians, activists, civic leaders and special guest speakers committed to bringing Black Power to the forefront.
The importance of this exhibition is significant for it can be seen as a response to the exhibitionary discipline of a historicized framework that was established in early-nineteenth century museums, as discussed in Tony Bennett’s, The Exhibitionary Complex, which aimed to “depict the development of people, states, and civilizations through time conceived as a progressive series of developmental stages.”( Bennett. 89) These developments on display, however, were dictated by museums that became fundamental instruments of the nation state in educating the public from the point of view of the capital. This point of view was in the context of late-nineteenth century imperialist’s employment of anthropology and was responsible for the separation of the histories of Western nations and civilizations of “other” people that lead to new forms of classification and display ordered by race. This order dropped ‘primitive people’ from history into a “twilight zone between nature and culture.” (Bennett. 90) This separation evident in exhibitions such as that of Saartjie Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus” whose large buttock invited a flurry of scientific speculation citing it as proof of the claim that black people were indeed a separate, more primitive line of decent or the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 which zoned pavilions into racial groups that denied black people and aboriginal populations any space of their own and “represented as subordinate adjuncts to the imperial displays of the major powers.” (Bennett. 95) This overview of the colonial power structure put in place within the exhibitionary complex is crucial in understanding Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power as a response to overturn an imperialized historical framework in offering a more equitable space for Black art and to provide the public with an accurate representation of the historical obstacles of artists within the black community.
Shown on the lower level in the Herbst Special Exhibition Galleries at de Young museum, the exhibition was divided into nine sections grouped by the art movement the artist was associated with, addressing important sub-topics such as the rise of the Black Power movement and the social impact of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965.
Some sections of the exhibition served to highlight members of the black community, such as section six: Black Heroes, which displayed nearly a dozen Black portraits by Black artists. Using a combination of historical, formal, social justice and ethnic identity conceptual frameworks the viewer is lead through the gallery chronologically at first, by work influenced directly by historically significant events that took place in America during the 1960s and 70s in the Black community.
The gallery was brightly lit, work that was hung was well spaced apart, and if possible had a wall of its own. Sculptural work was exhibited center of the section it occupied. The museum provided an introductory statement at the beginning of each section elaborating on its theme, most pertaining to social justice and ethnic identity. The artwork’s information plaque expanded further on the historical and formal context of the piece. Occasionally there were quotes inscribed high above the art on the gallery’s walls by reputable institutions associated with the Black Rights movement like The Organization of Black American Culture, 1967, or of the Artist themselves, “ I feel it my moral obligation as a Black artist to try to graphically document what I feel.” A quote from David Hammons in 1992 reads above his piece, The Door (Admissions Office) 1969, providing points to ponder in a historical context of the work on display.
Section Eight: Abstraction, was particularly appealing to me for I am drawn to the emotional gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionism. I was pleased to see one of second generation Abstract Expressionist, Ed Clark’s irregularly shaped canvas pieces as he was one of the first to experiment with this style in 1957. Yenom (#9) was painted in 1970 on his studio floor where he swept acrylic paint in blue and green hues across the surface of the canvas with a household broom. A beautiful symphony of complementary colors emerge providing a serene and tranquil viewing experience. On the adjacent wall hung Peumbra (1970), one of Frank Bowling’s Map Paintings, defined as large works with acrylic and spray paint that involve pouring, washing and spraying pigments on to canvases. After becoming interested in global impact of the African Diaspora and the Middle Passage of the trans- Atlantic slave trade, Bowling sought to “deconstruct a colonialist gaze that privileges Europe and North America and relegates colonized continents, countries and cultures to the shadows,” (deYoung) through his work. This, supporting the idea that the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition can also be interpreted as a response to the imperialized historical framework of the Exhibitionary Complex in finally giving a civilization of ‘other’ people to display a history of their own. This large rectangular piece reminiscent of a galaxy, is set on a backdrop of dark blue and black hues with large areas washed of teal, pink and orange acrylic paint along the canvas’ perimeter edge. A powerful piece that encompasses the viewer when standing center.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is not only a poignant display of art used to spark, or rather, continue the conversations pertaining to race and identity within the Black Community but also a stand against the imperialized historical framework deployed within the exhibitionary complex. A chance at representation within institutions that for so long have denied them museological display of their own history. I see it as an attempt of rebranding the art institution with an opportunity to deploy exhibitionary disciplines such as the principle of spectacle, as Foucault describes it, “of rendering a small number of objects accessible to the inspection of a multitude of men.” (Bennett. 98) Its time a for rendering of a large number of objects from unrepresented civilizations be accessible to the inspection of a multitude of men. This exhibition is only a snapshot of the history that is still absent from museums on a permanent basis.
Right now, there is an open letter circulating directed towards New York City's culture institutions demanding, "the dismantling of the systemic oppression that the aforementioned institutions readily participate in while demanding the back-breaking work product of Black/Brown employees." This letter focuses on the racism and mistreatment of employees of color within cultural institutions starting with New York facilities. Visit #fortheculture to read the open letter and sign your name as an ally.
Hi there, it’s been a while. Unfortunately this return is in the wake of a series of unfortunate events. I must not be the only one who feels the weight of the world crashing down upon them, while trying to maintain pieces of life before quarantine. My departure from posting came with an increase in school work, and growing lack of focus to my mental health journey. Since the last time I wrote, I have completed my AA in Studio Arts, and got accepted into Mills College. Then cried like it was a breakup once I realized I could not wrap my head around the debt that came with a private college. Instead, I decided on San Francisco State University, and am currently working towards a BA in Art History/Studio Arts. I’ve been working on my first collection of oil-paintings, and progress has been slow during semesters. I have ramped up the painting, and plan on having the first of seven up soon. In the mean time, I have compiled the work I’ve done over the last year and look forward to sharing the research I’ve collected pertaining to contemporary art from the 1960s to today, as well as my thoughts on the Classics Greek sculpture debate of the Elgin Marbles return to Athens.. And despite not having much growth in regards to my own mental health journey, the emphasis of my art, and art history research, remains rooted in mental health awareness. The last five months my main focus has been on the connections between mental health and artist. I can’t wait to share my findings titled, “The Mad Artist and Masterpiece: Examining the Link Between Madness and Artistic Genius,” as well as artwork of my own created from data collected after tracking my emotions over a period of three months…
In regards to one of the current most unfortunate events… The Murder of George Floyd has sparked outrage within the black community, and disgust of people who stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that have been educating themselves on the history of systemic racism within the United States and the terrible injustices Black people have been subject to at the hands of our nation’s high school educated police departments. George Floyd’s name now sits along side Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christopher Whitfield, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Frank Smith, Walter Scott, Troy Robinson, Janet Wilson, Randy Nelson, Mary Truxillo, Aaron Bailey, Paterson Brown, Atatiana Jefferson, Calin Roquemore, Darius Robinson, Emmett Till, and many more as a list of Black lives lost due to ramped police brutalities and racism. Although George Floyd’s murderers have been charged, the fight has just begun, especially for those of us who have been ignorant to the battle Black people have been fighting since this country’s establishment. The recent publicized death of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality is a reflection of a much larger issue that stems from institutionalized racism that this country was founded on. Slavery turned to mass incarceration, criminalizing people of color, dehumanizing and stereotyping an entire community. Now is the time to dismantle institutional racism by abolishing the police, and white supremacy. This platform is small, but as a a person whose white privilege has abled me to live comfortably in this country, I think it's best I try using it for those who have been robbed of that comfort. I think it is appropriate to begin my new uploads with a short history of systematic racism within art institutions, accompanied with artwork and critique of the exhibition, Art in the Age of Black Power 1961-1979 at the de young museum from March 2020.