I’m a Classicist; a lover of all things Greek and Roman. And I’m also a hypocrite.
I’ve spent my entire life (well, from the age of about 16 or-so) whining about the British Museum’s hoarding of the Parthenon sculptures and here I am, about to go ahead and commend them. So, putting Lord Elgin aside (and those horrendously partitioned marbles people like to put his name on) and my sympathy for Athens, I’m able to say that the British Museum has done itself a huge favour and has come up with something utterly brilliant: late night Fridays.
Looks like Lord Elgin didn’t lose his marbles, the British Museum had them all along! Sorry terrible joke…
In my eyes, the British Museum is magical at any time of day (god bless architect Sir Robert Smirke), but at night, it really is something else.
This occurred to me as I was sitting in the Member’s Lounge, hitting the books hard (or rather, admiring the array of handsome, cultured and intellectual men, of which there are many). Forgetting that it’s open till 8pm on Fridays, I looked down into The Great Court, saw the growing darkness and realised I’d been there for hours (5, to be precise) and that it was time for me to stop being so tragic and to go home.
On leaving, I came down the West Stairs (bear with me guys I’m painting the scene), walked through the Egyptian gallery and was about to turn left into The Great Court, when suddenly, like a shiny beacon in a sea of mediocrity (sorry Egyptologists), I caught a glimpse of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, the temptress that she is, and was shocked at just how lovely she looked. And indeed, succumbing to her temptation, I went to get a closer look (nice work, Praxiteles).
It was then, on venturing further into my beloved Greek and Roman exhibitions, I fully realised just how wonderful a place the British Museum is at night.
Illuminated Sculptures: Visit on a Friday evening and you’ll get a lot more out of the experience.
Now, and here comes the art-history spiel, I had a lecture not too long ago about the distortion of the object-viewer relationship that the British Museum has created by its presentation of the Parthenon frieze. Away from its original monument, at eye level, and with the different, original aspects forming part of one wall, the modern viewer fails to understand and experience the Parthenon frieze as (supposedly) the ancient was intended to. When I considered this, and all the debates surrounding repatriation, it angered me, and I cursed Lord Elgin’s name and his chisel. Yet, on entering the Parthenon exhibition, I had no choice but to leave that anger behind at the door.
There was something incredibly awe-inspiring about the illuminated statues beaming down at you, and I experienced them in a way that had otherwise been impossible for me in daylight. And I wondered, is this how a contemporary Athenian would have felt when they first caught sight of Pheidias’ monument, a monument unlike anything they had seen before? Of course, in their original context, the statues were not just art; they were religious art, something that all too often is forgotten by the modern viewer.
Gracing the walls of the temple, of the gods’ house, these sculptures functioned as more than just mere decoration; they were dedications, set up in hope of receiving the gods’ divine intervention and also as testimony to the fulfilment of such a vow. So for me, seeing the statues illuminated by the dark of the night is much more appropriate to this original context, as it evokes the ‘luminosity of the divine’ that is frequently made reference to in ancient texts, and which was so revered by the Ancient Greeks.
So I’ve concluded, that maybe, just maybe, it’s not so bad that the British Museum has the sculptures after all, they seem to do them justice. Yes, I’m a firm believer that they would be better suited to their original environment, and that Athens, for all of their ardent efforts probably, by now, deserve to have them back (they’ve even built a museum for them), but in the British Museum, one gets the sense of collective identity, a sense of, here’s all that we, as humans, have achieved throughout the millennia, presented in one, highly accessible and popular place for all to see and to celebrate.
And with that, I’ll just say this: if ever you intend on visiting the British Museum, make sure that it’s on a Friday evening, because you’ll get a lot more out of the experience.