Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A game played with marbles

I was in Greece last week and was struck by how the local and global have become so mixed in our modern world. Traditional foods favored by Greeks (and we’re not just talking souvlaki) have long been staples in many parts of the world, and in return, a city like Athens offers a rich variety of global cuisine. But local is still best. I had dinner with old friends, and twin brothers, Alex and George Georgitsis at Milos Estiatorio. We had fresh fish from the ice market, Greek salad, and cold beer. Perfect.

One place where this give-and-take is missing is in the new Acropolis Museum. When it opens in June, there will be a large space in its prominent location left empty, reserved for the 160 meter long Elgin Marbles that are on permanent display at the British Museum in London. The reason a home is reserved for this sculptural masterwork in Athens is because it was removed in parts between 1801 and 1812 by the avid collector Lord Elgin. Since then, the Elgin Marbles have become one of the most famous art works in the world. A vintage example of the local gone global.

All the great museums are full of material that has been ‘liberated’ from other countries. Over the last 50 years or so, greater sensitivity has brought about a major move to return some of this material to where it came from. Owning body parts like mummies and shrunken heads, for instance, is now seen by most museums as unacceptable. Nothing is more local than the right to rest in the place you were born. In my own home, New Zealand, the call for the return of the tattooed heads of Maori has been heard by museums all over the world. There is nothing more emotional than to see Maori people welcome the remains of their ancestors home.

A complication in the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece draws on emotion. Over the many years they have been displayed in London, this extraordinary frieze has become a Lovemark. The gallery where they are displayed is always full of people awed by these astonishingly powerful carvings. The British rationale for its stewardship of the works has been that had Elgin not removed the sculptures, they would probably have been destroyed. The imminent opening of the new Acropolis Museum, with its leading edge facilities and conditions, has exploded that line of argument.

Oddly, the director of the British Museum recently argued that the Marbles should remain in the U.K. to "preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol”. This perspective seems a confusion of global and local claims underpinned by past assumptions of British dominance. The Elgin Marbles are an undoubted Lovemark whether you believe they belong in their place of origin or in the place that has so passionately adopted them for the past 200 years. Everything I know about the local global debate suggest to me that this is the perfect time for this global icon to go home. To go back to being local.