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 head of a horse, made from Greek Pentelic marble, that looks remarkably like the one on display in the museum, tiny chips and chisel marks and all, carved by a robot.
At a workshop in Carrara, Italy, a robot sculptor has been putting the finishing touches on a copy of the Horse of Selene, scheduled to go on display in London during 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.
Michel thinks his replicas could be the answer to one of history’s most notorious cultural controversies. If the British Museum accepts his replicas, he says, they can send the originals to Greece.
“The sculptures we’re creating can break this 200-year-old logjam,” said Michel, the director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a heritage preservation organization based in Oxford.
The museum hasn’t been receptive. It refused his request to scan the marbles — he and a colleague ended up doing it by iPhone and iPad after entering the gallery as normal visitors. Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the museum, 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.
Still, Michel’s offer comes as reassessments of colonialism and cultural supremacy are inspiring the return of human remains and artifacts from museums in Europe and North America to their countries of origin. Britain has been lagging in this reckoning. But public opinion is shifting, and some scholars say the arguments for the status quo, including the fear of museums emptying out, are losing ground.
Some of the greatest momentum has been in the return of artifacts plundered by British soldiers from the historic Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, in the late 1800s.
Germany last month agreed that Nigeria could claim ownership of more than 1,000 items from the kingdom that have been held by German museums. In the United States, at least 16 museums have begun repatriating their Benin 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 items that were acquired unethically by modern standards.
But that’s just a small portion of what’s in British hands. The British Museum alone holds more than 900 objects in its collection from Benin. Some scholars and activists have expressed disappointment at the relative lack of movement.
“The British reckoning with colonial violence should not be led from Berlin and Washington, D.C.,” said Dan Hicks, a curator at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and author of “The Brutish Museums.” “It should be led from London.”
As for the Elgin marbles, recent headlines in Britain suggested a deal with Greece might finally be near. But that’s probably overselling a “Parthenon partnership” proposal mentioned by Williams.
Williams told the Sunday Times he was eager to “change the temperature of the debate” and believed “there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within 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 would give the marbles back to Greece — they’re an “absolutely integral part” of the collection, Williams said.
A loan then? That’s how some people interpreted Williams’s comment: “There are many wonderful things we’d be delighted to borrow and lend. It is what we do.”
But while the museum’s board of trustees has said it will “consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned,” it requires that the borrowing institution acknowledge the British Museum’s ownership.
That’s not likely in the case of the Elgin marbles: Their ownership has been the subject of intense dispute from the very beginning. The British government says Elgin had permission to remove them. Others say the permission was limited to pieces found in the rubble — he was not authorized to hack off those that were still attached to the structure. The original permit has been lost to history. And anyhow, Greece says, his deal was with an occupying force that didn’t represent the interests or will of the Greek people.
In any case, Elgin had the 5th-century B.C. marbles torn down 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 a costly divorce.
In 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 in the Acropolis Museum.
Boris Johnson, the outgoing British prime minister, responded that the matter lay with the British Museum. But that wasn’t necessarily true — the museum is bound by laws that prevent some nationally funded museums from returning objects.
“It’s an absurd obligation, which American museums don’t have. The law needs to change,” said Geoffrey Robertson, who was once a part of a team of British lawyers, including Amal Clooney, that advised the Greek government on the marbles. He believes a change in statute will be at the heart of any breakthrough, but said near-perfect replicas offer Britain “an alternative way to effectively display the marbles, to see all that there is to be seen, so the originals can be returned to where they belong and where they have most meaning.”
Johnson, as prime minister, has maintained that the marbles should stay in the United Kingdom because they were “legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time.”
As a classics scholar at Oxford, he had a different view. In a recently unearthed 1986 article, Johnson wrote that “the Elgin marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, ‘the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea.’”
That view today is supported by the British public. Fifty-nine percent of Brits think the marbles belong in Greece, according to a survey by YouGov in November. Eighteen percent said they belonged in Britain.
The Times of London for decades supported keeping the marbles in Britain. But in a January editorial, the newspaper wrote that they should be given back: “times and circumstances change.”
Michel says his robot-carved replicas offer one solution.
In other cases, the British Museum has displayed copies of artifacts. It houses a full-scale reconstruction of the wood and bronze gates of the palace of Shalmaneser III. It contains replicas of a Japanese teahouse and a Korean scholars’ study. It has a copy of a helmet from Anglo-Saxon England and plaster casts of ancient Mayan hieroglyphs. It even helped make copies of its copies of a Mayan stairway to install at the original site at Palenque in Mexico.
As with the Elgin marble copies, that project involved robotic cutting tools carving into rock based on a digital 3D model. “Is digital innovation the future for bringing historic events and places back to life?” the British Museum asks rhetorically in the promotional materials.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the British Museum said it “regularly [receives] requests to scan the collection from a wide range of private organisations — such as the IDA — alongside academics and institutions who wish to study the collection, and it is not possible to routinely accommodate all of these. ” It said it had accommodated visits from the Acropolis Museum for 3D scanning in 2013 and 2017.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology replicas will cost about $180,000 to make, Michel said. An initial copy of the Horse of Selene was carved by a robot running nonstop for four days, humming away in a white, airy workshop, its outstretched arm and diamond-coated tip 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. That marble was obtained “in consultation with Greek authorities,” Michel said.
Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, the technical partner on the project, said the 3D modeling allows their robot to create replicas with minute precision — and of much higher quality than plaster copies made by molds.
“You can recognize every scratch,” he said. “You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years ago were facing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the struggles of the artist,” he said.
The highly detailed copies will go on display in a space close to the British Museum in September.
Michel hopes that sharing them with the public will, at the very least, put pressure on the museum to shift its position.
“People are tactile creatures, and big stone monuments get people’s attention,” he said. “When you plop them down, people take notice.”