The Long Shadow of the Parthenon


Michael Liapis, Greek Minister of Culture, gave the opening remarks at the conference on “Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin”. He managed to get a good deal of press coverage, including a Reuters story.

Unfortunately I found his comments unhelpful, as did David Gill. He attempts to link the Greek quest for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and elsewhere with the decisions by the Getty, the Met, and the MFA in Boston to return relatively recent and looted antiquities. The two claims could not be more different. One can be characterized as a historical dispute, while the others are examples of clear wrongful conduct, many of which involved criminal wrongdoing.

Liapis argues “More and more museums are adopting tighter ethics codes and governments promote bilateral and international cooperation (for the return of ancient objects)… So an ideal momentum is being created … for clear solutions on this issue.”

Gill responds, quite rightly, that the major difference between these two claims is context. We know where the Parthenon Marbles came from, we have their context. In fact one can see the context from the new Parthenon Museum, pictured here. However we don’t know for sure where many of the looted antiquities which were returned in recent years came from. Their context is lost to us. He follows this up by asking a pointed question in return, will Greece take steps to return Bulgarian silver from the Pazardzhik Byzantine Silver Hoard?

Others have perhaps said this more persuasively than I, but I think cultural policymakers only make the situation worse when they link historical events such as Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles with recent criminal activity on a widespread scale. There may be a persuasive claim for the return of the marbles to Athens, however such a claim is not likely to succeed by making such unhelpful comparisons.

The closer link is with the Bulgarian silver, which it seems Greek’s legal system is unable to adequately return to Bulgaria.

On an unrelated note, the Acropolis museum, where this event is being held was reviewed by Richard Lacayo.

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

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