A Tiny Museum Takes the High Road and Shows the Way Forward

When the Nashville Scene held its first annual “You Are So Nashville If” contest in 1989, the winning entry read, “You think our Parthenon is better because the other one fell apart.”

The winners of the news weekly’s long-running contest unfailingly distill the zeitgeist of the city, but I still think about this one every time I pass the Parthenon. It winks at the absurdity of finding an exact, full-size replica of an ancient Athenian temple in a Nashville city park while simultaneously acknowledging the breathtaking grandeur of the building.

By the mid-19th century, Nashville had come to be known as the Athens of the South, a reference to the city’s uncommonly high number of colleges and universities. The real Parthenon was built in the fifth century B.C. as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Our Parthenon was built in 1897 as a temporary exhibition space in connection with Tennessee’s centennial celebration.

It is now a museum and still stands in Centennial Park, surrounded by 132 acres of gardens and other public spaces. Like the original Parthenon, Nashville’s Parthenon tells the world something about how the city sees itself, how it hopes to be understood, the truths it values most.

In keeping with that tradition, officials at Nashville’s Parthenon have just announced that the museum will be returning its collection of pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexico. This decision by a tiny local museum offers an illustration of the practical, moral and ethical issues that much larger museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum in London, are wrestling with as they consider what to do about the works in their collections that were looted from other cultures.

The 248 pre-Columbian works came to the Parthenon by way of donations from two private collectors during the 1960s and ’70s. The artifacts include tools, musical instruments, ceramic pots, effigies and animal sculptures (including one very charming Mexican hairless dog).

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