Elgin Marbles: replicas sculpted by robots are offered to the British Museum

A replica of Selene's Horse, one of the Elgin Marbles currently in the British Museum, is nearing completion at the Robotor workshop in Carrara, Italy.  (Maria Giulia Trombini for The Washington Post)
A replica of Selene’s Horse, one of the Elgin Marbles currently in the British Museum, is nearing completion at the Robotor workshop in Carrara, Italy. (Maria Giulia Trombini for The Washington Post)

Amid a global judgment on colonialism and cultural supremacy, pressure is growing on the British Museum to return the sculptures to Greece


LONDON — Over the years many have tried to persuade the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. But Roger Michel has something the others didn’t: a life-size horse’s head, in Greek Pentelic marble, which looks remarkably like the one on display in the museum, tiny chips and chisel marks and all, sculpted by a robot. .

In a workshop in Carrara, Italy, a robot sculptor has put the finishing touches to a copy of Selene’s Horse, which is due to be exhibited in London the first week of September. The horse is one of the best-known of the 2,500-year-old sculptures – also known as the Parthenon Marbles – taken from the Acropolis in Athens in the early 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, sculpting a replica of Selene’s horse, one of Elgin’s best-known marbles. (Video: Robotor)

Michel thinks his lines could be the answer to one of the most notorious cultural controversies in history. If the British Museum accepts his replicas, he says, he can send the originals to Greece.

“The sculptures we create can break this 200-year-old blockage,” said Michel, director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, an Oxford-based heritage preservation organisation.

The museum was not receptive. He refused her request to scan the marbles – he and a colleague ended up doing so by iPhone and iPad after entering the gallery as normal visitors. Jonathan Williams, the museum’s deputy director, threw more cold water on the idea in an interview with The Sunday Times this month. “People come to the British Museum to see the real thing, don’t they?” he said.

Yet Michel’s offer comes as reassessments of colonialism and cultural supremacy inspire the return of human remains and museum artifacts from Europe and North America to their homelands. Britain has fallen behind in this calculation. But public opinion is shifting, and some researchers say arguments for the status quo, including fears that museums will empty out, are losing ground.

One of the biggest boosts was the return of artefacts looted by British soldiers from the historic kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria in the late 1800s.

France returns royal treasures to Benin

Last month, Germany agreed that Nigeria could claim ownership of more than 1,000 artefacts from the kingdom held by German museums. In the United States, at least 16 museums have begun repatriating their Beninese artifacts, the Washington Post found in May, and the Smithsonian Institution has adopted a new policy that requires its museums to return or share ownership of objects acquired in a manner unethical by modern standards. .

London’s Horiman Museum said this month it would return 72 artifacts “acquired by force” in Nigeria, including its 12 Beninese bronzes. The universities of Cambridge and Oxford have announced that they will repatriate more than 200 Beninese bronzes.

US museums attempt to return hundreds of treasures looted from Benin

But this is only a small part of what is in British hands. The British Museum alone holds more than 900 objects in its Beninese collection. Some scholars and activists have expressed disappointment with the relative lack of movement.

“British consideration of colonial violence should not be directed from Berlin and Washington, DC,” said Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and author of “The Brutish Museums.” “It should be run from London.”

As for the Elgin Marbles, recent headlines in Britain have hinted that a deal with Greece may finally be close. But that’s probably an oversell of a “Parthenon partnership” proposal that Williams mentions.

Williams told The Sunday Times he was eager to “change the temperature of the debate” and believed “there is room for a really dynamic and positive conversation in which new ways of working together can be found”.

But if there is a change in tone, there has not yet been a change in policy. The British Museum has not suggested it will return the marbles to Greece – they are “an integral part” of the collection, Williams said.

A loan then? This is how some people have interpreted Williams’ comment: “There are many wonderful things we would love to borrow and lend. This is what we do.”

But while the museum’s board has said it will ‘consider any request to borrow and then return any part of the collection’, it requires the borrowing institution to acknowledge ownership of the British Museum.

This is not likely in the case of the Elgin Marbles: their ownership has been the subject of intense disputes from the very beginning. The British government claims that Elgin had permission to remove them. Others say the clearance was limited to pieces found in the rubble – he was not allowed to cut any still attached to the structure. The original permit has been lost to history. And anyway, says Greece, its deal was with an occupying force that did not represent the interests or the will of the Greek people.

In any case, Elgin had the 5th-century BC marbles ripped from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain, where he intended to display them privately in his home. He instead sold them to the British government for $42,000 to help pay for an expensive divorce.

During a visit to Downing Street last year, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis renewed Greece’s call for the “reunification” of the 80 meters of marble frieze in London with the 50 meters that reside at the museum of the Acropolis.

Boris Johnson, the outgoing British Prime Minister, replied that the matter was in the hands of the British Museum. But that wasn’t necessarily true – the museum is bound by laws that prevent some nationally funded museums from returning items.

“It’s an absurd obligation, which American museums don’t have. The law needs to change,” said Geoffrey Robertson, who was once part of a team of British lawyers, including Amal Clooney, who advised the Greek government on the marbles. He believes a change in status will be at the heart of any breakthrough, but said the near-perfect replicas offer Britain “an alternative way of effectively displaying marbles, seeing all there is to see, so that the originals can be returned to where they belong and make the most sense.

Johnson, as Prime Minister, argued that the Marbles should remain in the UK because they had been “lawfully acquired by Lord Elgin under the proper laws of the day”.

As a classics scholar at Oxford, he had a different view. In a newly unearthed article in 1986, Johnson wrote that “The Elgin Marbles should leave this culture of northern whiskey-drinking guilt and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and in the landscape of ‘Achilles, “the shadowy mountains and echoing it to the sea.”

This view is now supported by the British public. Fifty-nine per cent of Britons believe the marbles belong to Greece, according to a YouGov poll in November. Eighteen percent said they were from Britain.

The Times of London has for decades supported keeping the Marbles in Britain. But in a January editorial, the newspaper wrote that they had to be returned: “times and circumstances change”.

Michel says his robot-sculpted replicas offer a solution.

In other cases, the British Museum has exhibited copies of artifacts. It houses a life-size reconstruction of the wooden and bronze doors of the palace of Shalmaneser III. It contains replicas of a Japanese teahouse and a study of Korean scholars. It has a copy of a helmet from Anglo-Saxon England and plaster casts of ancient Mayan hieroglyphics. He even helped make copies of his copies of a Mayan staircase to be installed at the original site in Palenque, Mexico.

As with the Elgin marble copies, this project involved robotic cutting tools digging into rock based on a 3D digital model. “Is digital innovation the future for reviving historic events and places? the British Museum rhetorically asks in promotional material.

In a statement to the Washington Post, the British Museum said it “regularly [receives] requests for the digitization of the collection from a wide range of private organizations – such as the IDA – alongside academics and institutions wishing to study the collection, and it is not possible to respond systematically to all these requests. He said he hosted tours of the Acropolis Museum for 3D scanning in 2013 and 2017.

Making the replicas of the Institute of Digital Archeology will cost around $180,000, Michel said. An early copy of Selene’s Horse was sculpted by a robot that ran non-stop for four days, buzzing around in a white, airy workshop, its arm outstretched and its diamond-tipped point milling local Italian marble. A second copy of the horse will be carved from stone found in the quarries in Greece that were used to make the Acropolis. This marble was obtained “in consultation with the Greek authorities”, Michel said.

Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, the technical partner of the project, said that 3D modeling allows their robot to create replicas with minute precision – and of much higher quality than plaster copies made by moulds.

“You can recognize every scratch,” he said. “You can see the flaws in the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues of 2,000 years ago faced. It’s like stepping back in time – you can feel the struggles of the artist,” he said.

The highly detailed copies will go on display in a space near the British Museum in September.

Michel hopes that sharing them with the public will, at the very least, put pressure on the museum to change its position.

“People are tactile creatures and large stone monuments attract people’s attention,” he said. “When you drop them, people notice.”

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