More Thoughts on the Parthenon Marbles

“[T]he collection is a miracle”. So writes Michael Kimmelman on the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in the NY Times. He notes:




Ownership remains the main stumbling block. When Britain offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum last week on condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership, Mr. Samaras swiftly countered that Britain could borrow any masterpiece it wished from Greece if it relinquished ownership of the Parthenon sculptures. But a loan was out.
Pity. Asked whether the two sides might ever negotiate a way to share the marbles, Mr. Samaras shook his head. “No Greek can sign up for that,” he said.
Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources, bending old rules. The British Museum, the [Met], the Louvre and other great public collectors of antiquity have good reason to fear a slippery slope if the marbles ever do go back, never mind what the Greeks say.

Pity indeed. Lee Rosenbaum argues today that such a loan would be difficult, More daunting than logistics of shuttling this monumental work back and forth is the issue of trust: The British Museum would need ironclad assurances that once the marbles were in Athens, they would be allowed to leave when the time came for their long-term London sojourn. I keep envisioning Elgin Marble Riots, with distraught Greeks hurling themselves in the path of transport trucks.”  
However one comes down on this issue, it really is true I think that we are all the poorer for the inability of both the Greeks and the British Museum to work together, because somehow and in some form the sculptures should be viewed together, as one unified work of monumental art.

Here is David Gill’s terrific video post on the Parthenon Marbles dispute:


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Hitchens on the Parthenon Marbles

A close-up of a Parthenon frieze.

Christopher Hitchens was interviewed this morning on NPR’s morning edition, arguing the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens:

“If you can picture cutting the panel of the Mona Lisa in two and having half of it in Sweden and half of it in Portugal,” he says, “I think a demand would arise to have a look at what they look like if they were put together.”


Hitchens points out that other pieces of the Parthenon have been returned by the Vatican Museum, the Italian government and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. 

So far, officials at the British Museum have refused. 

According to a statement on its Web site, “The current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece.”

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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. 
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Greece Not Interested in Sharing the Marbles

Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum

Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has said his nation is not interested in working out a loan arrangement for the Parthenon Marbles. 

I can certainly understand that point of view, but at some point don’t we need to move beyond the question of whether that taking in 1801-2 was wrongful; and start asking what is best for the marbles and those who want to learn from them today?  I don’t want to belabor the point, but isn’t the fact that the marbles are still on display at the British Museum a pretty strong indication that their removal was legal, or if not, not subject to current judicial scrutiny?  We can argue about whether their continued display in London is ethical, but not I do not think a legal question any longer. 

From the BBC:

The government, as any other Greek government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer,” Mr Samaras said, in a statement. 
“This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” 
He added that he was prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the British Museum “to fill the gap left when the (Parthenon) Marbles finally return to the place they belong”. 
Mr Samaras was responding to comments made by British Museum spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton, on Greek radio. 
She said under existing British Museum policy the museum would consider loan requests by any foreign government, including Greece. 
But all requests would be considered on a case-to-case basis, taking many factors into consideration, including fitness of the item or items to travel. 
Greece would also have to recognise the museum’s ownership rights to the sculptures, which is a loan condition.

Ms Boulton told the BBC that the British Museum had not received a request from Greece, nor had it offered the marbles for loan.
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"a powerful broadside aimed at Britain"

That’s how Frank Partride describes the New Acropolis Museum in the Independent:

At the museum entrance, a signboard describes the Parthenon Gallery as a “dress rehearsal for a permanent exhibition of the entire frieze”. For the Greeks, it’s no longer a matter of if the marbles are returned, but when. Bernard Tschumi, the museum’s Swiss-born architect, signed off his €130m creation with the words: “I’m convinced the marbles will come back. Their return will make sense straight away.” 
Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, the academic who has overseen the six-year project, speaks with the quiet certainty of someone who knows his big moment is at hand, after a very Athenian sequence of delays that have postponed the opening by nearly a year. Building anything in Athens is bound to turn up a treasure or two in the subsoil, and as the holes were being sunk to house the museum’s load-bearing piles, a 5,000-year-old urban settlement was discovered, which had to be carefully excavated and incorporated into the design. They’ve achieved this triumphantly, turning part of the ground floor into a glass walkway directly above the ruins, giving the impression that the museum is suspended in mid-air.
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"Architecture as Propaganda"

So notes Peter Aspden in a long discussion of the New Acropolis Museum in the Financial Times:

Next spring, visitors will set foot inside Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s glass-and-concrete edifice, all sharp edges and skewed angles, and address for themselves one of the the most intractable cultural disputes of modern times. When they travel to the museum’s top floor, they will see marble panels from the famous frieze that used to encircle the Parthenon, the symbol of Athenian democracy that stands like a staid, elderly relative, looking wearily across at the upstart building from its incomparable vantage point on top of the Acropolis a few hundred metres away. 

Only about half of the original panels will be on view, of course. The remainder famously, or infamously, line the walls of the Duveen gallery in London’s British Museum, to which they were transported in the early 19th century by the Scottish aristocrat Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin. 

The Greeks have long wanted their Marbles back, but the building of the new Acropolis Museum finally gives them the physical authority to buttress an argument that has too often relied on shrill sentimentalism and unsubtle jingoism. The museum is a provocation, an enticement, a tease. Tschumi has done everything other than daub slogans on the exterior walls to say to the world at large: “The Parthenon Marbles belong here, next to the building from which they were taken.”

The glass rectangle on top of the building is designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the Acropolis as the Parthenon itself. It is flooded with natural light, and supported by concrete columns that, again, echo the architectural features of the ancient monument. The frieze looks proudly outward, as it did for centuries on its parent building, rather than brooding inwardly as it does in Bloomsbury. This, be sure of it, is architecture as propaganda. 

It’s no accident I think that the entrance and exit of the museum feature archaeological excavations. Setting aside questions of ownership and historical taking, which space seems more appropriate for the display of the objects?  Which space would be more enjoyable or enlightening for the visitor?  Will it only be a matter of time before the Greeks build the necessary consensus for the return of the sculptures?

Greece held a ceremony on Tuesday to mark the voluntary return of a fragment from the Parthenon taken by a German soldier in 1943.  Greek Culture Minister Michalis Liapis noted “The request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles has exceeded the borders of our country. It has become the request and the vision of the global cultural community”. 

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The Lewis Chessmen

On December 19th, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, stated “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessment are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland.”

The Barnett formula is a means by which the United Kingdom allocates its expenditures. This statement is sure to gain support among those Scots who feel England has been harassing and plundering Scotland for centuries. However I find the claim for the removal of all the chessmen to Scotland half-hearted. If one were to be unkind it could be called intellectually laze, intended to strengthen the notion of an independent and historically separate Scotland. It’s the kind of irresponsible and base nationalistic claim that does a disservice to legitimate repatriation claims.

The Lewis chessmen are a medieval collection of 93 pieces forming four or five complete sets. They were most likely carved in Norway in the 12th century, and then were likely taken by a merchant on their way to nobles in Ireland perhaps. However the pieces were lost, and were rediscovered sometime shortly before 1831 on a sand bank near the Bay of Uig on the West coast of the Isle of Lewis. The island at the time was ruled by Norway. The precise details of the discovery are unknown, but they were exhibited by Roderick Ririe at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831. Soon after 10 pieces were purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and this collection eventually was donated to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh in 1888, now the National Museum of Scotland. The remaining pieces were purchased in 1831 for the British Museum in London.

The pieces are fantastic, and reproductions of the set are quite popular. They are carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, and many of the human figures are quite expressive. In fact, the representations have a lot to teach about medieval weapons and dress.

Ian Jack in an excellent article in the Guardian examines the possible claims Scotland might have to all of the chessmen, and rightly comes to the conclusion that

It would be easy to accuse Salmond of nothing more than opportunism, adding to his reputation for that streak. In fact, he has been sporadically campaigning for the return of the Lewis Chessmen for 10 years. My explanation is that his demand comes out of a previous era of nationalism that was quite blind to Scotland’s history as England’s imperial partner – needed to be blind to it, because in terms of wealth it was Scotland’s golden age and inconvenient to anti-English grievance. I had thought that the grievance mode was passing. But not yet, not yet.

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum contacted Scotland’s culture minister, to ask if the statement was serious: “Because if it is, we need to understand the principles that lie behind it.” No response has apparently been sent to this query. What kinds of events can trigger a return? In the case of the string of the recent repatriations from American institutions to Italy, they came in response to solid evidence, including photographs that the returned objects had been looted, in violation of Italian law. In other cases, if an object is an ethnographic object important to ongoing religious or community practices for example, an excellent case can be made for a return; such is the case with vigango from Africa. However Salmond is unable to provide this kind argument for a return. His motivating animus seems to be that a unified set would make a great deal of money for the National Museum of Scotland or the Isle of Lewis. In fact in 1995 a complete exhibition of the chessmen was held on the Isle, and it attracted record crowds.

Salmond has been making this claim since at least 1996. In a Sunday Times piece by Alastair Robertson from 1 Dec. 1996 Salmond argued “just as the Elgin marbles should be restored to Greece … so should ancient artefacts come home to Scotland. There is no justification for them to remain in England.” Now this policy has some troubling consequences for Scotland’s museums. Its collections are packed with objects taken home by Scots during the colonial era, and many of these objects were hardly taken in a properly bargained for exchange. These institutions would surely have to quickly dispose of much of their collection. In fact, the chessmen were legally acquired, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest they were wrongfully acquired. If we were to return these objects to their homeland where they were created, they would not return to the Outer Hebrides, but rather to Norway.

Given the fact that Great Britain has such an ancient and fascinating history, it is perhaps unsurprising that various communities have called for the return of various objects. Inhabitants of St. Ninian’s Isle have begun to call for the return of medieval treasure, currently housed at the National Museum of Scotland. Many of these arguments would appear surprising to visitors to others from larger and more disparate nations. Scotland is after all not much larger than South Carolina.

When objects are allocated to regional museums, it makes the risk of theft and other difficulties more pressing. A handful of regional institutions are more difficult to safeguard than larger centralized locations of course. More importantly though, these objects should have a substantial curatorial or cultural imperative which dictates a return. If Salmond is able to construct or to offer such a narrative, perhaps he will move beyond base political rhetoric. If he’s looking for an example, perhaps he should take a look at the St. Louis Museum of Art’s exhibition of George Caleb Bingham’s The Sunday Election, which Tyler Green praises today.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com