Friday, August 19, 2011

Class debate: Elgin Marbles

A couple years ago I was looking for a way to spice up my lectures about Greek art and architecture and I came up with the idea to have an in-class debate regarding the Elgin Marbles.  This has become my absolute favorite class session of all of the courses I teach and has been very engaging, participatory, and meaningful for my students.

You are probably familiar with the basics of the debate - in the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (who were occupying Greece at the time), removed sections of friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon and additional buildings at the Acropolis at his own expense. He sold the pieces to the British Museum and the legality of their ownership has been questioned ever since. 
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
This topic is easy to set up with a general art history class. First off, I direct the students to look at a few pages in their textbook (we use  Gardner's Art Through the Ages) that feature images of various sculpture from the Acropolis.  I ask them to read the identifying caption information to see if they can find anything that strikes them as odd. Eventually, someone will notice that most of the objects are strewn about in European museums. I then ask them how they think the objects ended up there - generally leading to a discussion of imperialism.  

I then tell them the basic information related to the removal of the objects, not going into too much detail, and let them know that we will be having an in-class debate on this topic. I assign teams randomly, and hand out an article put out by BBC news a few years ago that does a decent job of laying out some of the basic principles and arguments for both sides. Students are instructed that the article should not be their only source material - I encourage them to look up news articles, similar situations with other contested objects, etc. I give students some time in their next class session to meet as a team and discuss their individual findings and to formulate a plan of attack for the debate.

I've found that the debate works best with around 5 people on each side, 10 per debate. I have small classes so this is easy for me to manage, but when my classes have been in the 20s, I generally have two debate sessions, with the other students having a small assignment to work on in the library when they are not debating.  I set up the classroom to have tables opposite each other with the teams arranged so they are looking straight across at the other team. I sit off to the side so they direct their statements to the opposite team rather than to me.

I structure the debate to have opening statements (which I encourage them to have prepared ahead of time) where each team member has a chance to speak, uninterrupted, for 1-2 minutes about one of their team's arguments - that way each member isn't saying the same thing.  I encourage students to take notes on the other team's opening statements so they can specifically address people with particular challenges in the general debate time. After both sides have made their opening statements, I open it up for general debate, and generally I allow that to go on for 20-30 minutes. Usually, I don't need to step in much at all -the dialogue tends to be lively and to flow well.  Once I feel general debate has gone on long enough, I ask each side to meet as a team for about 5-10 minutes to formulate any final closing thoughts, and then we have closing statements, where each team member has a minute or so to make any final comments without being interrupted. Some students save really fantastic quotes or prepared statements for this section to end with a zinger:)

After the general debate, I bring up some general topics - should there be encyclopedic museums, or should objects stay near their place of origin? does the debate change if we are talking about human remains like mummies? what about objects of religious significance, like Native American objects? 

Sometimes I ask the students to try to act as if they are committees from each side who need to come up with a compromise.  Usually this gives me the opportunity to tell them about issues related to the cost of transporting objects, insurance, issues related to replicas, and so on. 

I feel this debate is a really phenomenal way to not only teach students about a particular debate in the history of art, but also to talk about issues of repatriation, cultural patrimony, provenance research, and museum ethics.  It provides a way to bring ancient objects into contemporary times, fosters critical thinking, sharpens students research skills, gives students the opportunity to work in teams, and lets me take a break from lecturing!  I've found that students get really passionate about this topic, and often change their minds from their initial assessment of the situation. 

All in all, it's a really fun class session, and if you try it out, please let me know how it works for you!  I wrote a little article for Yahoo a while ago that briefly mentions this idea as well as some others that you might want to integrate into your class discussion of Greek art. 

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