Statue of Ilissos, loaned by Britain to the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Source: The Guardian, Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP.
Paul Mason, ‘Let’s end the row over the Parthenon marbles – with a new kind of museum’, The Guardian, 16 February 2015
Technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing could make the physical location of ancient artefacts less important
In the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a marble statue of the river god Ilissos is displayed in heavily guarded isolation. Purloined by Lord Elgin in 1805, it was loaned to Russia by the British Museum last December, in the face of protests from the Greeks, who want all the Parthenon marbles back. The move was highly controversial. Russia and the EU had imposed mutual sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine, and critics made much of the fact that Brits could move statues to Russia, but Greek farmers could not export peaches there. It was a reminder that the politics of culture is always the politics of physical things.
The 21st-century museum keeper is faced with many voices clamouring for justice: for the return of stolen goods, for recognition of imperialist wrongs, for racial justice and women’s rights. They have offered two broad responses to such claims. The first builds on the “universal museum” principle, outlined by a group of influential directors, in 2004. Their argument is, first, that the present location of treasures such as the Parthenon marbles is, itself, a historical fact to be respected. Since antiquities fertilised the British Enlightenment, they have become part of our national culture. On top of that, they argue that, by maintaining large, free and well–secured collections in metropolitan centres, the “universal museum” gives global access to collections that are global in scope. This argument gained strength after the US military recklessly damaged archaeological sites in Iraq, and then Islamic State fighters overran them.
Their second response is that there is a value in curation: that to shuffle the treasures between museums across the world to create new, temporary, themed exhibitions, spreads access and understanding further than a permanent collection would.
However, the rise of digital technology should allow us to imagine a new kind of museum altogether. The interactive audio guides and digital reconstructions found in some museums should be just the beginning. It is now possible to extend the museum into virtual space so that exhibits become alive, with their own context and complexity. Hard as it is when you are managing a business based on chunks of stone and gold, we should challenge museum curators to think of their primary material as information.