Seeing the Elgin Marbles: Photography, Gaze, and Artifacts

IMG_5505 - CopyFew archaeological artifacts are better known than the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, which are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles.  Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and Acropolis between 1801 and 1812, and they were spirited away to London for sale to the British Museum in 1816.  They remain in the British Museum today in the Duveen Gallery, which was specially constructed to showcase the Parthenon marbles.  

A flood of people stream through the gallery each day to see the sculptures, and many if not most of those visitors know the basic histories, mythological narratives, and perhaps even individual designs of the marbles.  The incessant stream of photographers capturing the statuary is not especially unique in contemporary museums, especially those displaying the treasures found in the British Museum.  Yet the frenzy of picture-taking in the Duveen Gallery suggests that many museum artifacts are latent camera images and not material things with which we physically interact.

A selfie and a conventional picture of the Parthenon marbles

A selfie and a conventional picture of the Parthenon marbles

The Marbles are today among the most popular attractions in a museum with nearly unparalleled holdings including the Rosetta Stone, Assyrian reliefs, and the Sutton Hoo burial.  The Museum’s holdings include a little more than half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculpture including 247 feet of the original 524 feet of the frieze (i.e., the upper part of the Parthenon); 15 of 92 metopes (the panels on the Parthenon’s walls); 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture Elgin took from the Acropolis.  These artifacts are among a handful of archaeological things and places that are known outside modest circles of scholars and in some cases are staples of global popular culture.  Archaeologists and art critics have spent two centuries celebrating the sculptures for a variety of artistic, cultural, and historical reasons, and the history of Marbles is indeed a revealing tale about empire, art, and ideology.

A couple gets their picture with Mona Lisa (image Artbandito)

A couple gets their picture with Mona Lisa (image Artbandito)

The steady stream of visitors into the gallery seems to verify that the Marbles have lodged in museum-goers’ imaginations, but the question is perhaps what we imagine we are seeing.  In his 1972 Ways of Seeing (based on his BBC series), John Berger suggested that viewing museum artworks is witnessing a piece of property: for instance, seeing the Mona Lisa is to gaze on a reproducible commodity we all recognized long before we arrived in the Louvre.  We do not see a unique artwork when we are in the Louvre; rather, we see, in Berger’s words, “the original of a reproduction.”  Such a painting’s capacity to serve as a meaningful social narrative is eroded by its status as “an artwork” and mystified by arcane art historical rhetoric:  the Mona Lisa tells no particular story, it simply is the Mona Lisa.

Taking pictures of the British Museum's Elgin Marbles labels.

Taking pictures of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles labels.

Berger took his inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin was fascinated by the ways photographic reproduction and film affected the authenticity of artworks and aesthetic experience.  Berger argued that art has become part of a “language of images.  What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.”  Like Benjamin, he suggests that paintings lost something with the advent of reproduction:  “the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable.”  Berger was suspicious of mystifying museum and art history discourses that he suggested aspired to control the meaning of images.

This does not discount the power of art and artifacts or the creative power of museums to shape how we see art and artifacts.  We certainly stand before some paintings and artifacts and have experiences that are not determined by gallery signage, canned tours, or the mere awe these things have even survived.  Perhaps our proximity to the Elgin Marbles does shape their meanings, yet for many such artifacts Berger may be correct that viewing them is less about making sense of their stories than it is of simply registering their existence.

The gallery text signs for the Elgin Marbles are admirably thorough, detailing the arcane mythological tales once related around the Parthenon.  Yet the social functions of the Marbles and Parthenon in antiquity or the Ottoman world pass without much analysis as the gallery’s story focuses on the narrative motifs portrayed by the original sculptors.  The challenge of telling the story of these millennia-old sculptures can never be resolved by even the most encyclopedic text, and there is nothing unique about the challenge the Elgin Marbles’ handlers face on this count.  Still, capturing our eye as something more than an extension of our camera phone and a facebook posting–and imagining the Elgin Marbles as something other than a classical masterpiece– is a complication faced by many more museums and iconic places ranging from battlefields to baseball fields.

Competing for a picture of the Mona Lisa (image Charlie Phillips).

Competing for a picture of the Mona Lisa (image Charlie Phillips).

For many of the people in the Duveen Gallery, the marbles are perhaps not strictly being seen by their eyes; rather, the marbles are being imagined as digital images and captured electronically to be seen later.  Today the Duveen Gallery is a whirlwind of camera phones framing the Elgin Marbles’ meaning.  There are countless professional images of the Elgin Marbles, but those flawless images were not taken by us.  Some visitors circle the massive gallery and photograph each sculpture and all of the British Museum’s dense signage, and many capture family pictures and selfies alongside the statuary.

To simply see the authentic artwork provides its own social capital in certain circles, and such claims to social capital are constantly being made on sites like Instagram, facebook, or foursquare (somebody named George M is the foursquare “Mayor” of the British Museum).  Facebook is littered with interchangeable pictures of people alongside the Elgin Marbles that are not really of classical statuary at all.  Like many tourists’ images of places like Stonehenge our pictures of such artifacts are really implicitly pictures invoking us.

On the one hand, those pictures may clumsily invoke bourgeois tourism and render the Elgin Marbles shallow things with patina and ambiguous consequence.  In an age of universal camera phones and instant social media capital, we may simply be capturing images that imagine ourselves to be educated, bourgeois, global, or something equally ambiguous.  On the other hand, though, those images and stories people tell of their encounter with these sculpture are likely more relevant to the everyday lives of visitors than many of the mystifying academic descriptions of artifacts like the Marbles.  Public scholars and museums are ambitious to teach people critical thinking and scientific insights.  Nevertheless, threads of scholarship, popular imagination, and personal sensory experience constantly merge in a complicated historical and artistic consciousness.  The stories being told about the Elgin Marbles on facebook may in many ways be much more compelling than the densest museum sign.  Rather than decry our inability to apparently reach people with accurate knowledge, we might instead ethnographically ask how folks end up seeing artifacts like the Elgin Marbles in particular ways.


Mona Lisa Louvre Gallery image from Charlie Phillips

Mona Lisa Gallery image from ArtBandito



Chris Gosden

2001 Making sense: archaeology and aesthetics.  World Archaeology 33(2):163-167.  (subscription access)

John Henry Merryman

2009 Thinking About the Elgin Marbles: Critical Essays on Cultural Property, Art, and Law, Kluwer, New York.

Stephanie Moser

1992 The visual language of archaeology: a case study of the Neanderthals.  Antiquity 66(253): 831-844. (subscription access)

2001  Archaeological representation: The visual Conventions for constructing knowledge about the past. In Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder, pp.262-283. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

Brian Molyneaux, ed.

1997 The cultural life of images: visual representation in archaeology. Routledge, New York.

Posted on November 16, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Very interesting point! It would be very innovative and fascinating to do ethnographic research to come to a better understanding of how “the public” experiences artifacts and monuments.
    I have also noticed the camera obsession at live shows. I often wonder if they’re paying as much attention to the music as they are to their camera phones!

  2. It’s all part of today’s obsession with hand-held technology, imo – people never actually LOOK at anything, but whip out their smartphones and shoot it. No, that’s wrong: they go there with smartphones in hand. We used to make jokes about Japanese tourists and their cameras; but they’re not a patch on today’s smartphone users. So easy to retreat from reality behind a lens ..

  3. I agree that the simulacra phenomenon serves as the overarching mode of viewing today. Everyone wants to take a picture like the picture in the guide book so that they can post it online for others to copy and to share too. Consumerism has usurped the artistic nature of an object so much that we cannot appreciate its nature. I think my mother was onto something when she said she did not want to take a picture but rather wanted to absorb the scene and feel its essence so that it could be remembered for years, more so than just a replicated photographic image.

  4. BBC Culture just had a contest asking people to submit their best museum selfies:

  1. Pingback: The #MuseumSelfie: Policing Heritage | Kaeleigh Herstad

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