The ‘Other’ Elgin Disputes

There’s not much ClassCon in this one, other than the connection to the guy who did that thing with those marbles — but there’s some CanCon, and so we’ll jump at the opportunity to mix Canadian history with Classical, no matter how tenuous the link. In any event, the guy at the centre of this one (more or less) is the eighth Earl of Elgin (son of Parthenon guy), who was one of the governors of Canada prior to Confederation and — interestingly, in this time when folks are struggling for democracy — was instrumental in bringing responsible government to Canada in the wake of our own little period of rebellion. Over the past couple of years, he too has been involved in a couple of ‘return’ disputes, most recently one which he isn’t really directly involved in.  Here’s the story from the Herald:

IT sometimes seems that anything linked to the Elgin dynasty and made of marble is bound to become shrouded in controversy.

The long-running row between London and Athens is rumbling on over the sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles, which were taken from the Acropolis.

Now a fresh dispute has emerged over a pair of marble busts of the 8th Earl of Elgin and his wife, created in Scotland in 1941 and donated to Canada.

The 11th Earl, whose family seat is Broomhall House, near Dunfermline, has been dragged into the row between a Canadian hotel and the country’s national gallery over where the busts should be displayed.

At stake are two busts, one of Sir James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, a Scot who became Canada’s first governor-general in 1847 and was a pivotal player in establishing a responsible government in the country. The other is of his wife Lady Mary Lambton, a daughter of the 1st Earl of Durham.

The sculptures, commissioned by directors of Standard Life, were shipped to the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa as a gift to Canada by the 10th Earl of Elgin when he heard in 1939 that a hotel was to be built and named in honour of his grandfather.

In July 1941, the busts went on display in the lobby of the hotel after an unveiling by the then prime minister, Mackenzie King.

However, in 2003 the hotel allowed the sculptures to be sent to Rideau Hall, the official residence in Ottawa of both the Canadian monarch and the governor general of Canada, for a historical celebration of Sir James Bruce organised by Library and Archives Canada.

The busts were never returned and for eight years managers of the hotel have had requests for their return rebuffed.

A Rideau Hall spokeswoman said the Elgin busts were only ever “on loan” to the hotel. She said the sculptures had been donated to the Government of Canada and were only to remain on display at the hotel for an “indefinite amount of time”.

The present Lord Elgin, Andrew Bruce, 86, says he understands there was an agreement that the busts would be returned to the hotel after the exhibition.

He said: “The argument seems to lie with the director of the National Gallery [of Canada] at the time.

“There has been a family relationship ever since the hotel was built and that seems to me to be vital.”

A letter at the time of the loan, from Pierre Théberge, former director of the National Gallery of Canada, to Don Blakslee, the then hotel manager talked of the arrangement.

It said: “Once the exhibition is closed the loans officer will co-ordinate the return of the sculptures to the Lord Elgin Hotel.”

However, reports from 1941 about the donation of the busts quoted Mackenzie King as saying: “Acting upon Lord Elgin’s suggestion, the Government has had great pleasure in loaning to the management of the hotel for an indefinite time these works of art.”

As with the London-Athens dispute, it seems this latest Elgin marble row still has some way to go.

Ironic, I guess that busts of an Elgin are in dispute … but even before this one, there was another ‘return’ situation between Canada and the Elgins over what are colloquially known as ‘Elgin’s Rocks’. Some excerpts from the Ottawa Citizen from a couple of years ago:

The marble sculptures were removed in the early 19th century from the Acropolis in Athens by the 7th Earl of Elgin. The rocks were thrown at the 8th Earl of Elgin, governor general to Canada, in 1849 by an English-speaking mob in Montreal angry over a bill compensating Quebecers involved in the rebellions of 1837-38.

In Montreal, Lady Elgin kept some of the rocks heaved at her husband. These rather bizarre souvenirs have remained with the family at its ancestral castle in Broomhall, Scotland, for the past century. Come next Friday, the 11th Earl of Elgin, the great-grandson of the former governor general, will be in Ottawa for a ceremony at Library and Archives Canada to officially turn over the rocks — and considerable other loot from his vice-regal ancestor — to the people of Canada.

The artifacts number in the hundreds. Full details about the Elgin artifacts are to be released next week, but some information has already leaked out. Stacks of documents include one from 1852 titled “Royal Seal and Warrant Granting Full Powers to Lord Elgin to Negotiate with the United States.”

There are watercolours painted by Lady Elgin, a pair of moccasins decorated with velvet, ribbon and pearls, and the Cree wooden snowshoes Lord Elgin personally used to tramp five kilometres to work from his home in the Monklands area of Montreal.

Some of the objects are being donated by the current Lord and Lady Elgin and others are being purchased from them. Funds were raised largely through an organization called Alberta Friends of Elgin, one of many efforts launched by Jennifer Considine, a Calgary-based energy analyst, to foster Scottish-Canadian relations.

The Elgin treasures will be housed at Library and Archives and at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Their arrival comes just two months after the National Gallery of Canada opened a major exhibition of newly acquired artworks and artifacts from the descendants of another 19th century governor general, Lord Dalhousie.

The pomp associated with the visit of Lord and Lady Elgin next week is in sharp contrast to 1849, when the then Lord Elgin planned to visit Ottawa — it was called Bytown in those days — to scout out the rowdy lumbering town as a potential capital for Canada.

The mayor of Bytown, Robert Hervey, was among the many Tories in Canada those days who hated the Rebellion Losses Bill signed by Lord Elgin because the legislation compensated some Quebec rebels. The rival Reformists supported the bill. The two sides ended up in a street fight in the Byward Market. Thirty people were injured and one man was shot dead in what later came to be called the Stony Monday Riot of Sept. 17, 1849.

Two days later, the two sides planned to face off again on Sapper’s Bridge, across the Rideau Canal, near what is now Parliament Hill. Cannons, muskets and pistols were hauled out. But before much harm was done, the army arrived and tensions eased.

As for Lord Elgin, he delayed his visit until July 1853 and received a warm reception. Lord Elgin’s dream of moving the capital to the city rechristened Ottawa was realized in 1857.

Lord Elgin was perhaps best known as a champion of “responsible government” for Canada, which then included just Ontario and Quebec. Because of his efforts, Canada started taking the baby steps that allowed it to become more independent from Britain.

This fact was noted by the current Lord Elgin when he participated in a debate in the House of Lords concerning the patriation of the Canadian constitution two decades ago. With the enthusiastic support of the current Lord Elgin, Canada was granted the power in 1982 by the British Parliament to amend its own constitution.

The warm reception expected for the Elgins next week is also in sharp contrast to the treatment most recently accorded the memory of Lord Durham, father of the landscape-painting Lady Elgin. Lord Durham, a British emissary to Canada, wrote a report in 1839 suggesting that French-Canadians be assimilated.

Lord Durham remains so controversial that last November, the National Capital Commission felt compelled to remove an illustration of his lordship from an exhibit on Sparks Street marking the 150th anniversary of Ottawa becoming the capital.

Some of the Elgin artifacts, including the infamous rocks, being unveiled Friday were part of a small exhibition mounted in 2003 at Rideau Hall. Adrienne Clarkson, governor general at the time, noted then how much the current Lord Elgin resembles his famous ancestor.

“Obviously, the genes are very strong in the Elgin family,” Ms. Clarkson said while opening the exhibition.

The surname of the Elgin family is Bruce, as in Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

“The Bruce family is a family truly writ in history,” Ms. Clarkson said in 2003. “And a family that is, happily, part of our history. It is very valuable for us to know this and to hold on to it. We must know every bit of our history — everything that has happened to us as a country, everbody who has contributed to it.”

That even includes, apparently, rocks thrown at members of the Bruce family.

Lord Elgin rock show coming to capital region | Citizen

There’s a nice little YouTube short about the whole incident as well (with photos of the ‘rocks’):

… and in case you’re in the Ottawa area:

Canada’s main history museum has unveiled a new exhibit casting the country’s Confederation story in a fresh light emphasizing the tensions that threatened to pull British North America apart in the years leading up to 1867’s unification project.

It’s a rewriting of the narrative of the country’s birth, says Canadian Museum of Civilization president Victor Rabinovitch, that doesn’t follow “the usual line about how peaceful everything was up here.”

Among the highlighted events are the 1837 rebellions in the present-day Quebec and Ontario. A scene is recreated from Montgomery Tavern in the future Toronto, where rebels under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie — grandfather of 20th-century Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King — plotted their uprising against the British government-appointed oligarchs who ran Upper Canada at the time.

Visitors to the tavern scene “find themselves amidst the conspiring rebels,” the museum states, just moments before they embark on their ill-fated attack — “armed with muskets, pitchforks and staves” — aimed at overthrowing the colony’s ruling elite.

The new display is a linchpin component of the museum’s Canada Hall, a circuitous tour through the country’s past that Rabinovitch describes as “the most visited history installation in all of Canada.”

More than 500,000 people visit the museum’s Canada Hall every year.

The new exhibit also recounts the post-rebellion unrest that led to the burning of the colonial legislature in Quebec in 1849.

Among the artifacts on display are two chunks of stone — sometimes jokingly referred to as “Lord Elgin’s rocks” — that were hurled at the then-governor general during the rioting that accompanied the burning of Parliament.

The attack followed a controversial decision by lawmakers to compensate Quebec rebels who suffered hardships following the 1837 uprising.

… we now resume our regular programming …

Fiddling While Libya Burns?

Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan chief of state, at...
Image via Wikipedia

Watching the events in Libya this week, it’s kind of interesting how journalists et al seemed to be searching for an appropriate ‘crazy imperator’ label to fit Qaddafi with. Shortly after his strange speech on Tuesday, Arab News picked the obvious:

Watching his TV speech to the Libyan people and the world on Tuesday night, no one could accuse Muammar Qaddafi of mere delusion. This was a bravura performance of insanity — and evil insanity at that. This was Qaddafi as the Roman Emperor Caligula or the Fatimid Caliph Hakim — even Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot.

At about the same time, Press TV (out of Iran … hmmmm) took the ‘other’ obvious choice:

The similarities between the recent actions of the Libyan dictator with Nero in the Great Fire of Rome suggest that the Libyan dictator is suffering from Caesar madness.

Nero Claudius Caesar, the fifth emperor of ancient Rome, burned down the city of Rome in the year 64 AD out of sheer madness; he finally committed suicide in the year 68 AD.

Currently, the people of Libya are faced with a complicated figure like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who has brutally bombed public places and killed hundreds of his own countrymen.

Today, we read one of his own generals making the comparison a bit more ‘official’ in the National:

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi will resort to any means to remain in power, including the destruction of his own country, a general who defected from the Libyan army said Friday.

“Muammar Qaddafi is like Nero, who burnt down Rome. He will burn down his own country,” Major Gen Suleiman Mahmoud said in this opposition-held eastern city, where preparations were underway for retaliatory strikes by pro-regime forces as well as a possible march on the capital to unseat the Libyan leader.

The dire warning came as Col Qaddafi appeared late Friday in central Tripoli to rally supporters. Wearing a fur cap and sunglasses and speaking from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a historic fort overlooking Green Square, he told an estimated thousand people that they would “fight and win” in their defence of the country. He also said that, if necessary, weapons depots would be thrown open to arm his people for battle.

This afternoon (I think) Qaddafi made a speech and the Guardian’s ‘live’ news blog made this comment at one point:

There are no images of Gaddafi, just his disembodied voice on Al-Jazeera, adding to the surreal nature of the occasion. While his regime crumbles, he’s talking about kids taking pills. It really is like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Finally, the Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) seals it with a headline which doesn’t even have a Roman reference in the body of the editorial:

… which pretty much makes it official, I guess … Qaddafi is Nero … Libya is burning … but unlike Nero, I suspect his final words will be something like qualis carnifex pereo

Classical Myth Course Thriving at UW-Madison

A very nice account:

Each spring, for 30 years, classics professor Barry Powell led nearly 500 UW-Madison students in Classical Myth, considered a backbone course for the humanities on campus. So his views on the topic might surprise some former students.

“There’s no such thing as classical myth,” says Powell. “It really doesn’t exist.”

Unlike Judeo-Christian scriptures, the nebulous canon of Greek (and, later, Roman) myth represents contradictory stories with varied ages and origins. To Powell, the course simply represents a selection of material and a way of presenting it.

During the last 80 years, however, the course and its leaders have left an indelible mark on UW-Madison and universities around the world.

In Powell’s words, from his best-selling textbook: “Only when we see how myth changes over time, yet somehow remains the same, can we grasp its essence.”

Name a large lecture space on campus — Ag Hall, even the Stock Pavilion — and chances are that the course once met there. Though the loss of one teaching assistant reduced the available discussion sections to a mere 15, the department added a summer session to meet the still-heavy demand.

On a Tuesday morning, assistant professor Jeff Beneker stands in front of the lecture screen on Bascom Hall’s second floor. Only a few of the 478 seats — wooden chairs covered with decades of seat-back graffiti — remain, mostly mid-row; students line the back wall.

At 9:55, the lights dim. The first lines of Hesiod’s “Theogony,” or genealogy of the gods, appear.

“It’s an instructional text, providing important information when we’re trying to learn how the gods are related,” says Beneker. “But as students of Greek culture, we’re also interested in the literary aspects of the poem.”

With its classical trim and raised stage, the room suits both the topic and Beneker’s performance. The Greek names come alive as he turns unfamiliar words into familiar sounds. Instead of using a pointer, he reaches toward the illuminated text for emphasis, as if grasping each word one at a time.

In 15 minutes, Beneker touches on Greek language, literature, history, geography, spirituality, performance practice, linguistics, criticism and philosophy. No wonder: His syllabus covers a period of more than 1,300 years, forming the roots of Western civilization.

Like most of his students, Beneker didn’t intend to be a classicist. Recalling his days as an engineering student, he can relate to students with packed schedules and little exposure to the humanities.

“We don’t want to ‘convert’ them,” he says. “But while they’re here at UW, we can get them involved and bring them into the oldest humanities tradition. I hope that makes them better scientists, giving them a broader view of humanity and what it means to be a person — in the ancient world and in the modern world.”

“The ancient Greeks invented these stories as a reflection of themselves and their society,” adds associate professor William Aylward, who teaches the class every other spring. “They mean so much to different people. They continue to be popular; they continue to resound. Other topics don’t have this enduring value. That’s what makes it so fun to teach.”

Students agree. Some take the course to satisfy a literature requirement; others enjoy the humorous, often bawdy stories. Tales of heroes, war, sex and scandals elicit just as much interest today as they did in the ancient world.

“It doesn’t take a lot for me to draw students into the stories,” says Jeannie Nguyen, a graduate student who has twice served as Beneker’s teaching assistant. “I think it’s because they’re presented as stories, not facts, open for their own interpretation and opinions on it. Everybody likes to give their own opinions.”

Remarkably, both the material and the presentation of Classical Myth, or Classics 370, still resemble the course’s first incarnation in many ways. Mirroring the transmission of the myths themselves, the lectures and teaching techniques have passed from professor to professor in a true oral tradition.

Walter “Ray” Agard arrived on campus alongside Alexander Meiklejohn in 1927. Agard began in Meiklejohn’s Experimental College before focusing on the classics.

In the 1930s, the department consisted of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit professors, accustomed to teaching literature in its original language. Building on the Great Books studies then in vogue, Agard’s course on myth in translation revolutionized the field.

“Many of my colleagues in other places thought that it was a degradation, practically, to offer courses as superficial as that to people who didn’t study the language at all,” said Agard in a 1972 interview.

At a time when public outreach was considered scholarly research, Agard’s work reached a popular audience of thousands.

“He’s a pivotal figure, making the transition from just teaching Greek and Latin to teaching the classics in translation and getting it out to the public,” says Laura McClure, professor and chair of classics. “It was innovative to teach classics without knowing Greek and Latin. It was only in the ‘30s and ‘40s that the idea became widespread. That gave us the foundation to develop these courses here that we still teach today.”

Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1948, Herbert Howe picked up seamlessly from Agard. Powell describes himself as Howe’s understudy, auditing the course several times and using Howe’s own lecture notes before taking over in 1975.

McClure, who taught the class in rotation with Powell during the 1990s, described her experience the same way.

“I was an understudy for the first year,” she says. “I made tapes of Barry giving the lectures; his idea was that I would ‘imbibe’ the Powell technique, just as he imbibed it from Howe.”

The Powell, Howe and Agard techniques reached their apex with Powell’s textbook “Classical Myth.” Nearing its seventh edition, the book combines a variety of ancient texts with expository materials, evocative images and modern perspectives on everything from “Star Wars” to Seamus Heaney.

“Any book or set of readings is just an interface between the content and the students,” says Aylward, who team-taught the course with Powell in 2006. “This particular book is a phenomenon.”

A true departmental collaboration, the book draws most heavily on Howe’s work. Aylward became co-editor after the fourth edition, contributing material on Roman civilization and Troy. Still, Howe’s own translations form the centerpiece.

“He did a great job of translating the Greek and Latin,” says Powell. “They’re very modern, kind of hip. The book really follows Herb’s lectures. It reserves Herb’s lucid and humorous presentation, which is why it’s been such a success.”

When Powell began teaching in the 1970s, few universities offered courses on myth. Thanks to his engaging text, Ohio State now packs 600 students into a lecture hall each trimester. Universities in Australia, New Zealand and even Taiwan have helped make the book one of the best-selling volumes on the ancient world.

In 1972, Agard described the three hallmarks of good teaching: competence and growth in one’s subject, perspective in organizing material and, “most important of all, having and showing enthusiasm for your material and for your students.”

This is the course’s true legacy. In nearly 80 years, only six people have taught the course. When Howe passed away last year at age 98, his obituary noted that he had taught approximately 26,000 students: “more, he believed, than any other faculty member in the history of UW-Madison.”

“The most passionate, enthusiastic, eccentric professors that I know are from the classics department,” says senior Annabelle Merg. “There’s something about the interconnectedness of classical mythology — oral traditions changing and the integration of surrounding cultures — that makes it impossible for the professors to talk in a straight line. The result is this thoroughly entertaining lecture that leaves you stunned and desperate for more.”

“I knew it was time to retire when a student told me, ‘I love this class; I’m crazy about it, and it’s just like my mother said!’” says Powell, with a laugh. “I realized I’d taught a whole generation.”