Last week I popped in to the British Museum. Actually, that's a lie. You can't just 'pop in' to the British Museum. Rather, you have to take a tent, emergency supplies, that stubborn British way of attacking great, enormous things and a camera with long, long, long battery life.
You could be there for weeks. And as I walked round I thanked my lucky stars my dad wasn't with me. He's one of those museum types that reads every little card of information, while my mum breezes through and stands at the end of each room waiting with her pleasant museum smile. She knows she's in a place that's good for her, but why does it have to take so long? And I'm a more of my dad in that respect.
Anyway, I had decided beforehand to attack the British Museum in parts. That day I would 'do Greece'. Having been to Greece some twelve years previously, it was about time I saw the rest of the Parthenon.
There's something very magical and romantic about Greek history (when you ignore all the tragedy). The funny wrestling games depicted on bulging vases; the interesting names; the amount of grapes as amorous food; the fact that many of the men have these beautiful, womanly faces, even the fighters getting attacked by centaurs. There are the gold necklaces, simply elegant and the statues, simply grand. Stepping through each room in the Greece section of the museum and you are hit with the enormity of their culture, intellect and design.
At the very end of this section is the huge Duveen Gallery which houses most of the Elgin Marbles. I was immediately impressed as I slowly followed the marbles and the stories they showed. The explanations help to show what is happening, and the larger statues at each end of the gallery help to emphasise the scope and size of where they came from.
However, another sensation which impacts is that of something is missing. This comes from two avenues: one, that no marble is completely in tact. Heads, bodies, arms, legs, horses, spears have long ago succumbed to weather, movement and age. When you're looking at such things, which are so old and have travelled that far, you hardly expect perfection, but there is still some sadness from their breaks. The second is that they sit here in London, beautifully presented and explained. But you do want to be able to look out of the window and see (pollution permitting) the acropolis hill, connecting the stones, placing them.
I finished my tour of ancient Greece and skipped through the first Egypt room to exit, resisting the urge to walk round that too. Another day, another day.
I sat outside the museum on the steps in the sun, surrounded by French teenagers, German couples, a Japanese tour group and some Brazilians debating whether to enjoy the sun after lunch or go back in and get some more culture and history. I thought about what it meant to bring the marbles here, how the museum has learnt to care for them during those 200 hundred years and the amount of people that can see them for free each year. I also thought about what was left in Greece and how long it took to take the remaining marbles away from the risks of earthquakes and the natural elements. It took until 1993 to remove the last of the frieze to safety.
All things considered, I don't think it's a case of returning lost marbles as much as preserving them.
Something we should all do.