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History books teach us free speech should be cherished and protected


The Parthenon is one of the world's most iconic structures. Built in Athens between 447 and 432BC, the temple was conceived to house a colossal gold statue of Athena as well as the city's treasury and silver reserves.

In the event of a Persian attack, these precious metals could be melted down and made into coins to finance a likely war. In the Middle Ages it was transformed into a Christian church, then into a mosque during the Renaissance and now, in deconstructed form, stands as a historic symbol of democratic ideals.

Argentinian artist Marta Minujin reconceived it as a means of protest following years of political dictatorship in her homeland. In 1983, she recreated it with the intriguing title 'El Parthenon de libros' or 'The Parthenon of Books' in which she built a replica in Buenos Aires using steel, plastic sheets and books. Why books?

Well, the reason was these were copies of books that had been banned in various countries and the point she was making was to symbolise resistance to political repression.

At present, a fresh rendering of Minujin's project is on display at the 'Documenta 14' art festival at Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany. Look it up on the internet and you'll see how iconic it is - 10 metres high, 70 metres long and 30 metres wide.

It's impressive enough by day but when illuminated by night it's truly awe-inspiring. It incorporates 100,000 copies of over 170 different banned titles and, with an added political twist, is situated right on the spot where the Nazis burnt some 2,000 books as part of their campaign of censorship in 1933.

There's a pretty febrile atmosphere at large in many places today. History ought to be one of our best teachers but often we ignore its lessons and end up repeating a sorry past or stifling some of our more promising initiatives for the future.

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Free speech is a great gift but there are some alarming moves afoot that cast increasingly long shadows over one of the great marks of a civilised society.

Did I say that two of the books in Minujin's Parthenon were a Mickey Mouse volume and the Bible?

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