Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Playing with Marbles

The reissue of Christopher Hitchens’s book about the fate of the Parthenon (widely known as the Elgin) Marbles is also a reminder of how cultural heritage and archives intersect or mimic each other. In The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (London: Verso, 2008), there are, at least, several issues where we can discern this relationship.

We see hints of the archival concept of provenance, as Nadine Gordimer in her introduction to the 2008 edition, writes that the Marbles belong in Athens since “they are the DNA, in art, of the people of Greece. If they also belong, as they do, to all of us who have inherited such evidence of human creativity as development, and there is no site in our world where the direct experience of seeing them is achievable for everyone, where else should they be but where they were created?” (p. viii). Gordimer also describes the Marbles as a kind of document: “The ‘Elgin’ marbles are sections, chapters in stone, excised from a marvel, narrative brutally interrupted, some isolated in the British Museum, others, incomplete in their sequence, in their rightful place in Athens” (p. ix). Robert Browning, in an essay in the volume, also underscores such issues: “The Parthenon has been there for a long time, and it will be there long after the writer and the reader of these words have moldered to dust and their very names are forgotten. The building and its sculptures were conceived and executed together. They will be better understood and appreciated if they can be seen together” (p. 15).

Hitchens also draws attention to the cost of the great symbolism represented by the Parthenon and its sculptures: “A pagan shrine, a church, a mosque, an arms dump, a monument to Nazi profanity and a target for promiscuous collectors of all kinds . . . . It is a wonder that the Parthenon still stands. But none of its vicissitudes or mutilations has altered its essential character as the great surviving testimony of the Periclean age. This makes it precious to the Greeks, but also to human civilization, however considered. Of the various depredations that the building has endured, only one can be put right – and that one imperfectly” (p. 23). This suggests why it is so common that archives, libraries, museums, and historic sites are targeted for both destruction and preservation in times of warfare and civil strife.

In another interesting analysis about just how well the British Museum has taken care of the Marbles, considering some cleaning done in the late 1930s inflicting more damage than care, Hitchens offers this: “The Museum never acknowledged publicly what had occurred, and the matter was stonewalled at Question Time in the House of Commons. But there is a tantalizing reference in the Public Record Office at Kew to a Foreign Office file labeled ‘Treatment of Elgin Marbles use of copper wire brushes to clean the marbles thus damaging the surface’. The file itself, like so many interesting entries in the PRO, has been destroyed” (p. 88). The role of archival sources for evidence and accountability is evident in this statement.