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A remedy for the Elgin marbles: Robot-carved replicas?

A replica of the Horse of Selene, one of the Elgin marbles currently at the British Museum, nears completion at the Robotor workshop in Carrara, Italy. (Maria Giulia Trombini for The Washington Post)

A replica of the Horse of Selene, among the Elgin marbles currently at the British Museum, nears completion at the Robotor workshop in Carrara, Italy. (Maria Giulia Trombini for The Washington Post)

Amid a worldwide reckoning on colonialism and cultural supremacy, pressure keeps growing on the British Museum to come back the sculptures to Greece

August 22, 2022 at 4: 00 a.m. EDT

LONDON Through the years, many have tried to persuade the British Museum to come back the Elgin marbles to Greece. But Roger Michel has something others didnt: A life-size head of a horse, created from Greek Pentelic marble, that looks remarkably just like the one on display in the museum, tiny chips and chisel marks and all, carved by way of a robot.

At a workshop in Carrara, Italy, a robot sculptor has been putting the finishing touches on a copy of the Horse of Selene, scheduled to be on display in London through the first week of September. The horse is among the most widely known of the two 2,500-year-old sculptures also called the Parthenon Marbles extracted from the Acropolis in Athens in the first 1800s by Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, when he was ambassador to the occupying Ottoman Empire.

Video from July 5 in Carrara, Italy, shows a robot, called Robotor One L, carving a replica of the Horse of Selene, among the best known of the Elgin marbles. (Video: Robotor)

Michel thinks his replicas may be the answer to among historys most notorious cultural controversies. If the British Museum accepts his replicas, he says, they are able to send the originals to Greece.

The sculptures were creating can break this 200-year-old logjam, said Michel, the director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a heritage preservation organization located in Oxford.

The museum hasnt been receptive. It refused his request to scan the marbles he and a colleague finished up carrying it out by iPhone and iPad after entering the gallery as normal visitors. Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the museum, threw more cool water on the theory within an interview with the Sunday Times this month. People arrived at the British Museum to start to see the real thing, dont they? he said.

Still, Michels offer comes as reassessments of colonialism and cultural supremacy are inspiring the return of human remains and artifacts from museums in Europe and THE UNITED STATES with their countries of origin. Britain has been lagging in this reckoning. But public opinion is shifting, plus some scholars say the arguments for the status quo, like the concern with museums emptying out, are losing ground.

A number of the greatest momentum has been around the return of artifacts plundered by British soldiers from the historic Kingdom of Benin, in what’s now Nigeria, in the late 1800s.

Germany last month agreed that Nigeria could claim ownership greater than 1,000 items from the kingdom which have been held by German museums. In the usa, at the very least 16 museums have begun repatriating their Benin artifacts, The Washington Post within May, and the Smithsonian Institution has adopted a fresh policy that will require its museums to come back or share ownership of items which were acquired unethically by modern standards.

Londons Horiman Museum said this month it could return 72 artifacts acquired through force to Nigeria, including its 12 Benin bronzes. The universities of Cambridge and Oxford said they might repatriate a lot more than 200 Benin bronzes.

But thats only a small part of whats in British hands. The British Museum alone holds a lot more than 900 objects in its collection from Benin. Some scholars and activists have expressed disappointment at the relative insufficient movement.

The British reckoning with colonial violence shouldn’t be led from Berlin and Washington, D.C., said Dan Hicks, a curator at Oxfords Pitt Rivers Museum and writer of The Brutish Museums. It must be led from London.

Are you aware that Elgin marbles, recent headlines in Britain suggested a cope with Greece might finally be near. But thats probably overselling a Parthenon partnership proposal mentioned by Williams.

Williams told the Sunday Times he was wanting to change the temperature of the debate and believed there’s space for an extremely dynamic and positive conversation within which new means of working together are available.

But if there exists a change in tone, there’s not yet been a big change in policy. The British Museum have not suggested it could supply the marbles back again to Greece theyre a truly integral area of the collection, Williams said.

Financing then? Thats how some individuals interpreted Williamss comment: There are various wonderful things wed be delighted to borrow and lend. It really is what we do.

But as the museums board of trustees has said it’ll consider any obtain any portion of the collection to be borrowed and returned, it needs that the borrowing institution acknowledge the British Museums ownership.

Thats improbable regarding the Elgin marbles: Their ownership has been the main topic of intense dispute from the beginning. The British government says Elgin had permission to eliminate them. Others say the permission was limited by pieces within the rubble he had not been authorized to hack off the ones that were still mounted on the structure. The initial permit has been lost to history. And anyhow, Greece says, his deal was having an occupying force that didnt represent the interests or will of the Greek people.

Regardless, Elgin had the 5th-century B.C. marbles torn down from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain, where he designed to display them privately in his home. He instead sold them to the British government for $42,000 to greatly help pay for an expensive divorce.

In a trip to Downing Street this past year, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis renewed Greeces demand the reunification of the 80 meters of marble frieze in London with the 50 meters that have a home in the Acropolis Museum.

Boris Johnson, the outgoing British prime minister, responded that the problem lay with the British Museum. But that wasnt necessarily true the museum is bound by laws that prevent some nationally funded museums from returning objects.

Its an absurd obligation, which American museums dont have. Regulations must change, said Geoffrey Robertson, who was simply once an integral part of a team of British lawyers, including Amal Clooney, that advised the Greek government on the marbles. He believes a big change in statute will undoubtedly be in the centre of any breakthrough, but said near-perfect replicas offer Britain an alternative solution solution to effectively display the marbles, to see all that there surely is to be observed, therefore the originals could be returned to where they belong and where they will have most meaning.

Johnson, as prime minister, has maintained that the marbles should stay static in the uk since they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin beneath the appropriate laws of that time period.

As a classics scholar at Oxford, he previously another view. In a recently unearthed 1986 article, Johnson wrote that the Elgin marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and become displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea.

That view today is supported by the British public. Fifty-nine percent of Brits think the marbles belong in Greece, in accordance with a survey by YouGov in November. Eighteen percent said they belonged in Britain.

THE DAYS of London for many years supported keeping the marbles in Britain. However in a January editorial, the newspaper wrote they should be returned: times and circumstances change.

Michel says his robot-carved replicas offer one solution.

In other cases, the British Museum has displayed copies of artifacts. It houses a full-scale reconstruction of the wood and bronze gates of the palace of Shalmaneser III. It includes replicas of a Japanese teahouse and a Korean scholars study. It includes a copy of a helmet from Anglo-Saxon England and plaster casts of ancient Mayan hieroglyphs. It even helped make copies of its copies of a Mayan stairway to set up at the initial site at Palenque in Mexico.

Much like the Elgin marble copies, that project involved robotic cutting tools carving into rock predicated on an electronic 3D model. Is digital innovation the near future for bringing historic events and places back again to life? the British Museum asks rhetorically in the promotional materials.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the British Museum said it regularly [receives] requests to scan the collection from the wide variety of private organisations like the IDA alongside academics and institutions who want to study the collection, in fact it is extremely hard to routinely accommodate most of these. It said it had accommodated visits from the Acropolis Museum for 3D scanning in 2013 and 2017.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology replicas will definitely cost about $180,000 to create, Michel said. A short copy of the Horse of Selene was carved by way of a robot running nonstop for four days, humming away in a white, airy workshop, its outstretched arm and diamond-coated tip milled local Italian marble. Another copy of the horse will undoubtedly be carved from stone within the quarries in Greece which were used to help make the Acropolis. That marble was obtained in consultation with Greek authorities, Michel said.

Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, the technical partner on the project, said the 3D modeling allows their robot to generate replicas with minute precision and of higher quality than plaster copies created by molds.

It is possible to recognize every scratch, he said. You can observe the flaws of the stone and you could start to see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years back were facing. Its like heading back in time it is possible to have the struggles of the artist, he said.

The highly detailed copies will continue display in an area near to the British Museum in September.

Michel hopes that sharing them with the general public will, at least, put strain on the museum to shift its position.

Folks are tactile creatures, and big stone monuments get peoples attention, he said. Once you plop them down, people get sucked in.

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