University of Edinburgh visit Switzerland with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Norman Rodger, Projects Development Officer at the University of Edinburgh travelled to Switzerland in February 2020 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant.  This is the report from Norman’s visit. 

Skulpturhalle Basel

The main purpose of my trip was to visit The Skulpturhalle Museum to learn about their collection and discuss possible collaboration.

The Skulpturhalle has the world’s only complete cast of the Parthenon Frieze, made up of casts taken from the original marble sculptures currently held in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, The British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and small fragments from other European museums.  The University of Edinburgh, within Edinburgh College of Art, also has a cast of the same frieze and, though incomplete, many of the sections are unique and potentially of higher quality than those in other museums, including those in Basel.

The main reason for this visit was to study the casts there and compare the differences between their set and ours, with a view to virtually completing the frieze, using 3D scans of the best quality sections from the two collections.  While some study can be undertaken from photographs, lighting and camera angles can skew the perception of the pieces, making it difficult to accurately compare differences.  By viewing the casts first hand and even more so through 3D modelling and computer analysis, it is possible to wish to make more accurate comparisons.

I arranged to meet with Dr. Tomas Lochman, the Curator of the Permanent Collection, Department Greek and Roman Sculptures. We met on Friday 14th February to discuss the background to their collection and ours, then focussed on project ideas that we have been developing at the University of Edinburgh and how the Basel museum could compliment these.

However, as a result of his position in the Skulpturhalle museum, I was also able to visit its parent museum, the Antikenmuseum Basel and see its current exhibition “Gladiator. The True Story,” which presented the story of gladiators using exhibits excavated in Pompeii.  In addition, I visited the Musikmuseum, part of the Basel Historical Museum.

After discussions with Dr. Lochman, I was given a tour of the collection, with particular focus on the Parthenon Frieze.  As the museum was closed, I was then given free access to study and photograph the casts.  As a result, I was able to photograph the entire East and West friezes to use for further research on my return to Edinburgh.  We were also able to discuss possible joint project work and will now continue our dialogue with a view to setting up a collaborative project around the Parthenon casts.

Fig. 1- East Frieze – Section VII – Edinburgh College of Art – with heads added in the 19th century

It was interesting to compare differences in the casts held in Edinburgh and those held in Basel.  Some sections in both collections differ from the original marbles in that they are casts taken after 19th century restoration, while others, in Basel, have been reconstructed by adding additional casts taken from small fragments of original pieces held in other museums.

Having compared differences between collections, we are now looking at preparing a joint funding bid to further develop work on the cast collections, with an initial focus on the Parthenon Frieze.  The Basel collection is internationally recognised and so working with them will strengthen any potential funding bids, add valuable expertise and draw in additional collaborations.

Fig. 2 – East Frieze – Section VII – Skulpturhalle

The casts tell an important part of the story of the marbles as some parts, such as the West Frieze, were moulded in-situ in 1806, while the actual marbles on that side of the Parthenon were not removed until 1993, by which time they had suffered considerable pollution damage.  The casts are therefore the only 3D record of the marbles at the time of Lord Elgin’s removal of the other sections.  Moreover, even the original marbles, now housed in the British Museum, subsequently suffered damage as a result of conservation work and so, again, the casts are an important record of their previous condition.

Preparatory work is key to the success of developing international work, both in terms of researching the institution being visited and sending them as much advance information about the purpose of your visit as possible, ideally with an outline agenda of what is to be discussed.  This means that host institutions will have a clearer idea of the purpose of the visit and, especially if time is limited, better focus conversations.

It is also important to be clear on language ability and not to assume that staff being visited will necessarily speak English.   In my case, I admitted in early emails that my German is, at best, limited and would have to communicate in English.  While main the person I was meeting was fluent in English, other people I met spoke none.  In establishing initial contact, I composed my emails in English but added a Google Translation, which, while not perfect, would at least make the message more understandable to a non-English speaker.

Fig. 3 – West Frieze – Section II – Edinburgh College of Art –
Note the left arm of figure on left, stomach of left horse and rear of right

I now have to write and send Dr. Lochman a detailed project proposal, with a view to adding the Skulpturhalle as a partner in a bid for Horizon 2020 funding.  If successful, this project will allow us to use the casts of the Parthenon Frieze as an exemplar source for developing a set of tools and standards that will enable other museums to develop online access to and understanding of their collections.  To achieve this will involve the input of several partners over a two-year period, with total funding of around €3m.

The initial impact has been to make contact with another institution holding that recognises the value and importance of a cast collection and both seeing the possibilities and potential for future collaboration.  Longer-term we have the possibility of creating resources that will benefit not only our own museums and their users but many others as well.

I feel that the visit has given me a better understanding not just of the importance of the museum collection that I have been working with but a greater sense that my personal knowledge of it has grown to the point where my opinions and ideas are being valued by recognised world experts.

Fig. 4 – West Frieze – Section II –Skulpturhalle – Note differences.

“Norman’s visit has been very positive, both in terms of potential ongoing collaboration with the Skulpturhalle and also in terms of interpretation ideas from the other two museums he visited.”

Jacky MacBeath, Head of Museums, University of Edinburgh

“As a result of Norman’s visit, the Skulpturhalle is now considering incorporation of the Edinburgh project’s results in its own project concerning the Parthenon pediments and into the new projected permanent exhibition of the Parthenon sculptures.”

Dr. Tomas Lochman, Curator of the Permanent Collection, Department Greek and Roman Sculptures, Skulpturhalle, Basel