More on the Parthenon Marbles

Det nye AkropolismuseumWith the opening of the Parthenon Museum coming soon, there was bound to be a great deal of discussion of the proper place for the sculptures, which always seems to return to the question of whether Lord Elgin’s taking of the sculptures 200 years ago was rightful, wrongful, illegal, unethical, or a combination of the above.  Part of this has taken the form of a back and forth over whether some kind of loan arrangement could be arranged between the Greeks and the British Museum.  The Guardian reports that the dispute has “indirectly dragged in the Queen, the Greek-born Duke of Edinburgh, and Gordon Brown.”  It also quotes Antonis Samaras, who rejected the very tentative loan proposals because they would somehow legitimize Elgin’s taking of the marbles. That is unfortunate I think, because focusing on the circumstances surrounding the taking are almost certainly going to prevent any kind of resolution to the dispute.

Three months won’t be enough to take them out of their boxes . . . .  As a time frame, it’s bizarre. And agreeing to the condition [of ownership] would be like sanctifying Elgin’s deeds and legitimising the theft of the marbles and the break-up of the monument 207 years ago. No Greek government could accept that.  For the first time, they are opening a window. They see they have to do something, now that the new museum is here.

Hannah Boulton, the British Museum spokeswoman clarified her earlie comments and responded to Samaras saying “It’s not the case that an offer to lend the Parthenon Sculptures was specifically made … It is clear from Mr Samaras’s statement that he does not recognise the British Museum’s legal ownership of the sculptures in our collection, which makes any meaningful discussion on loans virtually impossible.”

I inadvertently caused a minor stir among some commenters earlier this week, including Kwame Opoku when I argued that Greece has no tenable legal claim to the marbles.  By that I mean, if Greece were to bring suit againt the British Museum, its trustees, or even the Government, it would have absolutely no chance of succeeding in court, because far too much time has elapsed, and it is not clear I don’t think that the taking of the marbles was illegal under early 19th century legal principles.  I do not think any court would recognize the takign of the objects as theft, nor am I aware of any international agreements that would consider the removal of the sculptures as theft.  If they were taken today, sure, of course they would be theft because they would be owned by the Greek government; but that was not the legal situation 200 years ago.  As Damjan Krsmanovic points out at the Assemblage, such an examination leads to one obvious conclusion—that the ethics of the time were wrongheaded when viewed from today’s perspective, but that merely critcizing those actions does not get us any closer to where the marbles belong now. 

[I]n order to remove the marbles, Elgin needed to obtain a firman (a permit) from the Ottoman authority, which permitted him to remove any sculptures, inscriptions and the like as he saw fit. Because of the unwieldy size of some pieces, a number were sawn into sections for easier transportation. The use of contemporary ethics, which are a product of a particular context and time, is merely going to result in a biased perspective that nullifies the Ottoman law and Elgin’s actions, which are a product of a different social, cultural, and political context.

 We are left with a very heated, very emotional argument which seems unlikely to be resolved so long as both teh Greeks and the British Museum insist on a kind of public battle for popular opinion.  I think—and perhaps it is naive—that a better solution could be reached far sooner by a collaborative relationship, in which some or all of the marbles or even some other objects of antiquity are shared back and forth among the two nations. 
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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