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Politics

Would British Museum Return Parthenon Marbles for Robot Copies?

LONDON – While the debate rages over whether the British Museum will ever return to Greece the stolen Parthenon Marbles it has kept for 200 years, a guerilla campaign is being conducted to use a robot to recreate some them.

It wasn’t easy.

Roger Michel, Executive Director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology at the University of Oxford and Technical Director Alexy Karenowska were denied permission to scan the pieces so restored to another tactic.

Under the eyes of security staff who didn’t know what they were doing, they used standard iPhones and iPads equipped with Lidar sensors and photogrammetry software, to create 3-D digital images, The New York Times said in a feature on their effort.

The aim, they said, was to produce replicas in hopes that the museum would show those instead and let Greece have its treasures back although every other entreaty has failed to budge officials there who said the marbles are its property.

His Oxford consortium developed a robot with the ability to created near faithful copies of large historical objects and its first effort at the marbles began at a workshop in Carrara, Italy.

The robot began carving a highly detailed copy of one of the Parthenon marbles on display at the British Museum: a life-size head of a horse. But that’s using local marble, a prototype before using marble from Greece’s Mount Pentelicus, the source for most of the Acropolis’ construction.

Michel said the robot will hew a copy of a second Parthenon marble: a metope, or sculpted panel, of the Centauromachy, a mythic battle between the civilized Lapiths and bestial Centaurs at the wedding feast of Peirithous and Hippodamia.

He wants the British Museum to take them in trade for giving back Greece those stolen off the Parthenon by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin – the Times headline called them The Elgin Marbles, not The Parthenon Marbles.

Broke and desperate in 1816, he sold the marbles to the British Parliament for 35,000 British pounds, the equivalent of $4.35 million today, and they were then given to the British Museum to display.

Elgin, with permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire which didn’t own the Parthenon, cut off 17 life-size figures from the temple’s pediments, 15 of the 92 metopes that adorned the exterior of the building and roughly half  – a 247-foot portion  – of the sculpted frieze that once ran around the inside.

“Our sole purpose is to encourage repatriation of the Elgin marbles,” said Michel. “When two people both want the same cake, baking a second, identical cake is one obvious solution,” he said, although the museum wants the original and frosting.

GENUINE FAKES NOT ORIGINALS

It could well hinge on whether the museum accepts the reproductions are identical, which can be amorpous in the art world where fakes and genuine originals abound but nothing beats the real deal.

“If we take the British Museum at its word, the only attributes of the marbles that matter to the museum are its physical qualities and the extent to which they reveal the history and aesthetics of antiquity,” he said.

The 3-D images of the marble horse head were uploaded into the carving robot, which shaved the prototype over four days.  Michel said that the final models – both of Pentelic marble  – would be done the end of July and displayed at an undisclosed location in London.

Later this summer, he plans to have the robot fabricate two more copies and touch them up to show how the originals would have looked, with any absent pieces restored and damage repaired.

There are severe critics and doubters.

“Who exactly is asking for this replication?” Colleen Morgan, an expert in digital archaeology and heritage at the University of York, said of the Parthenon effort.

“What population does this replication serve? What are the political implications?” She added: “When artifacts become symbols of nationalism and of state power, we need to be very careful about who we are working with and for, and to what end,” she told The Times.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni wouldn’t comment on the imitations being created and Bernard Means, Director of the Virtual Creation Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University said the Greek government should have been consulted.

“Otherwise, the effort is suggestive of that colonial mind-set, where those who appropriated objects without the informed consent of the colonizers feel they have the right to do with the objects as they please  – often in the guise of science, and even if well-intentioned,” he said.

“The building from which they were looted is still standing,”  Tim Schadla-Hall, an archaeologist at University College London who specializes in the public understanding of archaeological heritage told the Times. “They should be returned to Greece.”

“The building from which they were looted is still standing,”  Tim Schadla-Hall, an archaeologist at University College London who specializes in the public understanding of archaeological heritage told the Times. “They should be returned to Greece.”

Daisy Dunn, a British classicist, told the newspaper that she doubts the standoff will ever be resolved and that offering up copies would suit the sensibilities of museum officials who are possessive.

“It is hard to imagine anyone who wants the marbles to remain at the British Museum being satisfied with something produced in part by robots, when the originals represent to them the high point of human artistry,” she said.

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