The British Museum is facing legal action from one of the UK’s leading heritage preservation organizations over its refusal to allow the 3D scanning of a piece from its collection of Parthenon marbles.
The Institute for Digital Archeology (IDA) said it would serve an injunction against the museum imminently, raising the stakes in the dispute between the two.
“We will file a complaint by the end of the week asking the court to order the British Museum to grant our request,” Roger Michel, executive director of IDA, told the Guardian. “We want them to treat our request exactly the same way they would treat similar requests. Their refusal was capricious and arbitrary.
The Oxford-based institute had hoped, with the museum’s blessing, to reproduce one of the high relief metopes from the south facade of the Acropolis Temple as a “proof of concept”. In 2016, he rebuilt the Syrian Triumphal Arch of Palymyra in Egyptian marble from photographs after the monument was destroyed by the Islamic State.
Proponents believe 3D imagery could be used not only to create replicas of classical treasures, but also to help resolve the long-running dispute between Athens and London over the heritage of the Parthenon Marbles. The scans would allow a sculpting robot to reproduce the works with sub-millimeter precision using the same Pentelic marble from which the originals were chiseled, according to IDA, a proponent of repatriating the marbles to Greece.
“Our goal is to give people a chance to see how extraordinary a copy can be,” said Michel, a Harvard-educated American lawyer who founded the institute, which has collaborated with Unesco, and describes his mission such as the preservation and restoration of ancient artifacts. at a time when irreplaceable items are under “obvious threat” of being lost forever.
“Copies [of the Parthenon sculptures] in the past were poor quality plaster casts. It will be orders of magnitude better. It will help people see and feel the potential of this technology in ways that mere words cannot describe. »
Peter Higgs, the museum’s acting custodian of Greek and Roman antiquities, admitted that digitally digitizing the 5th century BC sculptures could “unlock new discoveries”, but the IDA was told by email that his request couldn’t be helped, five weeks later. was done.
Michel and his team visited the British Museum last week despite the ban, deploying what he described as an “iPad on steroids” to scan the room from the floor of the Duveen Gallery. The organization argued it was within its rights to do so as it said the British Museum’s own guidelines ‘clearly allow’ the use of 3D software to capture images of the gallery’s antiquities.
The news, however, angered the museum. “The British Museum has been deeply concerned to hear suggestions that unauthorized scanning has taken place in our galleries. Any such activity would constitute a breach of our visitor regulations,” a statement said. “We receive regular requests for digitization of the collection from a wide range of private organizations… and it is not possible to systematically respond to all these requests.”
Michel responded in an email seen by the Guardian: “The guidelines clearly authorize exactly what we have done, referring to ‘3D software’, ‘3D imaging’, ‘scans’, ‘data digitized”, to the “cameras” and to the “telephone”. cameras’.
“Far from expressing doubts about the suitability of our activities, your security staff were eager to learn more about the process and were very helpful and encouraging. I’m sure everything was captured by your CCTV. In view of all these facts, your characterization of our activities represents a gross misrepresentation of the truth; I hope you will immediately correct your obvious errors.
In a subsequent statement to the Guardian after the threat of legal action by the IDA, a museum spokesperson reiterated that it was not possible to respond systematically to all requests from “private organizations – such as the IDA – alongside scholars and institutions wishing to study the collection”. stressing how important it was that “any request is properly taken care of so that, to the best of our abilities, we can ensure the highest levels of quality and academic rigor”. He added that he was already using advanced technologies to explore and share his collection and had facilitated visits to the Acropolis Museum in 2013 and 2017 for 3D scanning.
The digitization furore has appalled Greek officials amid a shift in attitude among some of the world’s top museums about repatriating contested objects.
“How on earth can they refuse such a request when the museum boasts of its educational and enlightening role?” said Elena Korka, Honorary Director General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage at the Greek Ministry of Culture. “What’s so disturbing about a scan? This seems totally absurd to me and in total contradiction with the self-proclaimed role of the museum.
The antiquities, considered the culmination of classical art, have been in the possession of the British Museum since 1816 after they were removed from the Parthenon at the request of Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who then controlled what is today modern Greece. .
Successive Greek governments argued that the antiquities had been illegally pirated from the temple at a time when it was a subjugated nation with no voice or sovereignty. The British Museum claims they were legally acquired.
Emboldened by surveys showing a majority of Britons support their return, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has reinvigorated the campaign to reunite the artwork with the rest of the monumental frieze, on display at the Acropolis Museum in view of the site the sculptures once adorned.
In an unprecedented step, Mitsotakis put the issue at the center of discussions with Boris Johnson in Downing Street last November, reminding the British Prime Minister of his love for Greece. As a classics student at Oxford, Johnson had supported the removal of statuary to Athens.
Michel said that although his team was able to complete most of the digital imaging using the iPad program, there were still parts of the metope that could be better scanned with a scale if a permit was eventually granted. allowed. “There’s a bit at the top that we’d like to see better,” he said.
In their current form, “beaten and whitewashed” in the Duveen Gallery, the IDA director argues, the sculptures bear no relation to their true aesthetic in antiquity – something, he argues, that the creating replicas might also help solve.
“The reconstruction could restore the colored surfaces of the originals – including a range of skin tones,” he said. “In short, reconstructions could help the British Museum do everything it claims it wants to do so much better.”