Marble relief, corner-stone of Slab XLII from the North Frieze and Slab I of the West Frieze of the Parthenon: procession of horse-drawn chariots (438-432 BCE) (courtesy the British Museum; © the Trustees of the British Museum)

An Oxford-based organization that uses digital imaging technologies to catalogue, preserve, and reconstruct cultural heritage may take legal action against the British Museum in London after the museum rebuffed its request to 3D scan the Parthenon marbles.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), which previously made a copy of Palmyra’s destroyed Triumphal Arch, had hoped to digitally scan a metope from the Parthenon’s south façade as “proof of concept.” Its ultimate goal was to create an exact replica of the Parthenon marbles, chiseled into Pentelic marble by carving robots. Beyond its possibilities as an educational resource, a highly accurate reproduction could offer a potential solution to the longstanding dispute over the marbles between the British Museum and Greece, the IDA has suggested.

The Parthenon marbles are a group of friezes, metopes, and sculptures that were stripped from the temple of Athena in Greece in the early 19th century at the behest of the seventh Earl of Elgin. Britain acquired a significant portion of the marbles in 1816, and in 1832 the objects went on display at the British Museum, where they have remained a collection highlight since. Greece, which views the marbles as an important piece of cultural patrimony stolen while the country was under occupation, first formally requested the marbles’ return in 1983; the request was denied. Despite the many calls to repatriate the marbles in the ensuing decades, little headway has been made in the dispute. In response to an entreaty from Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2021, British prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that the marbles were acquired legally, later adding that decisions regarding their restitution were within the museum’s, rather than the government’s, remit.

The IDA’s request to 3D scan the marbles was denied via email more than a month after it was submitted. IDA executive director Roger Michel called the letter refusing the request “bizarre.”

“Everything at the British Museum is publicly owned; the marbles were purchased with tax dollars. As the British Museum Act of 1963 states, it is the duty of museum trustees to make these objects available to the public,” Michel told Hyperallergic. “The fact that the vast majority of objects held in the British Museum are not on public view is all the more reason to have a liberal access policy.”

Although permission had been denied, a team from the IDA brought an iPad-sized scanner to the British Museum and began to make scans. The museum said in a statement at the time that it “was deeply concerned to hear suggestions that unauthorized scanning took place in our galleries,” declaring the move a “breach of our visitor regulations.”

“We fully adhered to the museum visitor guidelines, which seem to have been drafted to accommodate 3D scans,” Michel said.

East pediment statues from the Parthenon in the British Museum (photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly; via Flickr)

A British Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic: “We receive many requests to research and study different objects from the collection from a wide range of academics and private companies, such as the IDA, and as a charity we work hard to facilitate as many of these as possible.”

“Digital scanning plays an important role in research and has the potential to unlock new discoveries for many different objects including the Parthenon Sculptures,” the representative said. “We are continuing to explore our approach to digital scanning to fully understand its capabilities as part of our wider work.”

The spokesperson added that the British Museum has used 3D scanning on collection objects in the past, and in 2013 and 2017 allowed a team from the Acropolis Museum in Athens to scan the Parthenon marbles.

Michel, who pointed out that 2013 “was the stone age for 3D scanning,” asked: “What threat does our scanning pose to the British Museum? They have made it a contentious issue.” Today, the marbles are missing the original color and about 25% of the original stone. A reconstruction, he explained, would allow the museum to present the marbles in a form truer to the original — and potentially facilitate a détente between Greece and Britain. At minimum, the nations could work collaboratively on the project. Perhaps the British Museum might even be moved to return the original marbles and instead retain the replica, Michel suggests.

The IDA is currently consulting with lawyers and has filed a Freedom Of Information Act request in order to better understand the number and proportion of requests for access that the British Museum typically grants.

“Do British Museum trustees have a duty to make these objects available, and what is the scope of that duty? That is a narrow legal question for which a judge will provide answers,” Michel said.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)