Why do we love looking at really, really old stuff so much?

Here's why the oldest, most useless, least aesthetically pleasing objects can be worth millions, and yet still be free to look at

Who doesn't love a good museum? I for one love an opportunity to nerd out and look at some weird shit for a couple of hours. I feel like I’m not the only one, either. In 2015, the British Museum, the National Gallery and Natural History Museum each received over 5 or 6 million visitors.  The UK’s 2500 museums hold no less than 200 million objects... That’s a lot of visitors, a lot of museums and a whole lot of stuff.

So why do we love looking at really, really old stuff so much? What makes the objects valuable, and what makes the experience of looking at them valuable? And if they’re worth so much, how come the UK lets us look at so many of them for free?

Take the Elgin Marbles, a series of sculptures from the Parthenon that have caused a whole lot of cross-cultural controversy.

The Elgin Marbles come from the Parthenon, a historic building in Athens that began as a temple, then a church, a mosque, and a storehouse for gunpowder. A British lord, Lord Elgin, excavated some of the sculptures in 1801, and paid £39,000 to take them away. The UK parliament bought them for £350,000 and stuck them in the British Museum.

So where does that £350,000 price tag come from? Well, Lord Elgin paid quite a lot for them in the first place. He went bankrupt soon after making the purchase and selling them on, a few years later, helped him get some cash in his pocket. Elgin was interested in classical art and the temple contained a large collection of classical Greek sculptures. 40% of the sculptures had been destroyed by the Turks by the time he took up his post in Athens as British ambassador, so he must have felt it was worth paying a lot for them to make sure they’d be protected in the UK.

Lord Elgin.

Then there’s the cost of the marble itself. Marble is durable, it’s damn hard to get out of the ground, and it’s quite pretty. Its value brings is a little closer to the £350,000 – though perhaps not the whole way there.

Cultural value has a huge role to play. Greeks really, really want the marble sculptures back. So much so that they’ve built a space for them into their main museum in Athens. The only reason Elgin was able to sell them to the UK in the first place is because they were seen as ‘culturally’ valuable pieces of art.

Ancient Greece was full of cultural milestones for Western history. For one, they made some pretty impressive sculptures, wrote some nice plays and invented democracy. Secondly, a lot of the English language comes from Greek and a lot of English thought is influenced by Greek philosophy. Finally, the time in history when Elgin took the marbles to the UK was the end of the ‘enlightenment era’, when Westerners thought learning about Ancient Greece would help them understand their own identity.

Put together, the marble, the prestige, and the history of the marbles, not to mention the technical know-how to sculpt them in the first place (you try carving a lifelike human out of marble) come together to create that value – emotional and financial.


If all this old stuff (like the Elgin Marbles) is worth so much, then why does the UK let people look at them free of charge?

National museums in the UK were made free to enter in 2001. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the move in a review 10 years later on the grounds that ‘culture is for everyone’.

So far, so good – but where do we draw the line on what culture is? If museums and galleries are free then why do we still pay for cinema and TV licenses, for example? And when so many new forms of expression are invented every day in so many different social groups, who decides what it takes for something to become ‘culture’?

The logic seems to be that some stuff helps to explain our national identity and so should be in a national museum, free for anyone who is part of that nation to look at. But the line gets harder to draw when we start to think about who decides what stuff is and isn’t valuable to our cultural identity. It could easily be people who only represent one part of society making those decisions on which parts of our cultural history to showcase over others. This might end up with only objects representing certain parts of cultural history, and not others.

Keeping stuff free to view seems to end up making the UK more money, weirdly enough. Ten years of free entry to museums has cost “approximately £45 million a year to implement” but generated an extra £315 million through the tourist industry, according to the director of the Natural History Museum. For every £1 of government subsidy, national museums provide £3.50 in wider economic benefit. So, free museums are actually cost effective.

While this model seems to work in London, it is hard to tell if it would work anywhere else. As the second most visited city in the world, London already gets a lot of travellers, so perhaps the free museums add to the list of reasons convincing them to come. France, for instance, trialled free admissions to museums for 6 months in 2008 and decided it wasn’t worth it.

Natural History Museum.

Perhaps the 'value' of these things comes not only from how much we can buy and sell them for, but from what they can tell us about ourselves.

So sure, the value of stuff is partly about the classic stuff – cost of production, cost of materials, cost of labor. But it's also about the cultural significance, and what it tells us about history and humanity. Perhaps we enjoy being able to looking at things in museums because it helps tell us more about ourselves – why we live the way we do, why our culture is the way it is and where our principles come from.


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