January 20, 2004
Who owns the Elgin Marbles?
The present Lord Elgin says that Greece cannot be trusted to look after the Marbles. Should we keep them?
THE question conjures up Lord Elgin, from an era of privileged appropriation, versus the Greek nation, natural guardians of aboriginal Western civilisation, in unseemly dispute over the toy cupboard: no surprise that polls indicate popular support for sending back the sculptures. Yet, of course, it’s not that simple. Both sides claim moral and legal priority (hardly surprising, given the ill-recorded and disputatious circumstances of what occurred in Athens two centuries ago). Yet history does not help. We should instead be asking ourselves, what do we really care about now?
Who cares about ancient art or archaeology? Not, apparently, the Greek Government, for whom it is more important to build an empty museum to house the sculptures than it is to recover evidence that could have furthered understanding of the people who created the Parthenon, which was destroyed when the museum was built.
Nor British campaigners calling for the return of the marbles, who seem unconcerned by the damage to the site of the battle of Marathon caused when — the irony! — the new Olympic rowing centre was laid out.
Nor anyone who would move the sculptures from an international and multicultural context in the British Museum to their nationalistic fate in Greece, giving in to museological blackmail.
What matters now is that we understand the art, the buildings and the people behind them; that we preserve all that we have, and save or properly record the unexcavated storehouse that still survives; and that we allow the highest number of people to see and enjoy these wonderful things. When we can say honestly that we have done all that, then perhaps we will be entitled to ask the other question. If it still matters.
British Archaeology magazine
Record of neglect
CAMPAIGNERS say that Elgin’s purchase of the marbles was illegal because he did not have the consent of the Greek people, and because they were not the property of the Ottoman Sultan, who sold them. But this is a completely anachronistic way of looking at history. Who were the Greek people at this time? There was no Greek State in 1801 and never had been one. There were more people who considered themselves Greek living outside what we now recognise as the territory of the Greek State than within it. Should their consent have been sought?
Greece suffers from a peculiarly narrow chauvinism, in the cultural as in other domains. It prizes exclusively that part of Greek history which precedes the death of Alexander the Great. The Byzantine and, especially, post-Byzantine periods are largely ignored and their monuments neglected. Numberless early-medieval chapels in Crete and the Mani languish in varying states of decay and neglect; even the main Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki have been devalued as they have been overshadowed by apartment blocks. Mount Athos itself has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair.
Practically every provincial town in the country has been architecturally desecrated and no one knows how many interesting remains have been lost through the activities of property speculators. There are churches and monasteries throughout the Pindos mountains which have scarcely even been catalogued. Their frescoed walls and painted ceilings have been ruined by damp and repaired any old how with raw cement while flagged floors have been concreted over.
Even now the Greek Government is proceeding with a hydroelectric scheme in the valley of the Acheloos River, which is destroying one of the finest stretches of wilderness in the country as well as mediaeval monuments — this in spite of two rulings by its own Supreme Court as well as protection under EU and worldwide environment agreements.
Threat to museum heritage
THERE is nothing unique about the status of the Elgin Marbles. If we give in to Greek pressure and transfer them to Athens, how will we justify resisting pressure to return every other work of art to its country of origin? Or is this what Marbles Reunited really wants — the destruction of all our leading museums and galleries? The Elgin Marbles were acquired entirely legimately. There is no benefit to the world in moving them.
What about the others?
THERE are three points to consider. First, would the marbles be restored to the Parthenon? Unfortunately, no. They would merely be moved from one museum to another.
Second, such a return would require an Act of Parliament. Successive governments have refused to introduce such legislation. Any Private Members’ Bill is unlikely to succeed, as the last attempt in 2002 demonstrated.
Third, the Parthenon Marbles are not just in Athens and London, but in nine locations in six countries. Any campaign for their return should apply not just to the British Museum, but to all the museums concerned.
While I accept the emotional case for returning the Marbles to Athens, it is unlikely to happen unless and until these serious points are addressed.
David Atkinson, MP,
Nine points of the law
HOW absurd that Robin Cook proposes handing the Marbles over to help London’s Olympic bid. I’d have thought that spending some government money on decent transport links just might be more effective, but logical thinking is entirely absent from Mr Cook’s preposterous argument.
Perhaps he hopes for a job presiding over a government commission to hand over the contents of all our galleries, museums and stately homes to their countries of origin. It makes no sense to single out the Marbles for special treatment.
Stand firm, trustees of the British Museum, in the face of this bullying rant. Can you imagine anyone asking the trustees of the Louvre to hand over their Greek artifacts, and being egged on by French politicians? No, neither can I.
What I saw
THE last of the pedimental sculpture had to be removed from the Parthenon because of pollution in 1977, and now has to be keep in a nitrogen-filled box as it is in such poor condition. Despite this, much of the frieze remained in situ until 1993, and some of the frieze, along with a few of the metopes, remain on the building to this day, being eaten away by acid rain and smog. The west frieze, removed over ten years ago, is still awaiting conservation, and is not displayed in the museum.
I am one of the few who have seen the west frieze since it was removed from the Parthenon, and not only is it in appalling condition, but it is continuing to disintegrate without proper conservation.
Dr Dorothy King,
(author of The Elgin Marbles),
Elgin the saviour
THE Acropolis is shrouded in scaffolding, the Temple of Nike has been removed for reconstruction and half the Propylaea is likewise disassembled. The place is a mess. The Acropolis Museum itself is well lit and well arranged, but the Parthenon Marbles that survive in Athens are less well displayed than other material. Their condition is infinitely inferior to those Marbles brought to Britain by Lord Elgin. They have suffered from two centuries more weathering and above all from the appalling pollution.
It is immediately apparent why the Greeks want the Marbles returned: those they have give little clue to the beauty and perfection of the sections of the Parthenon frieze now in the care of the British Museum and other museums such as the Louvre. That the Greeks know this is clear from the fact that the casts of the caryatids which support the Erectheum were made from the single example in Lord Elgin’s collection which is in far better condition than those still in Greece. That Lord Elgin was not so much a vandal but rather a saviour of the Marbles should be acknowledged.
The compromise already made by the Greeks with the Louvre to have plaster casts made is a sensible one. Quality casts could be made from the Parthenon frieze and presented to the Greeks.
IF WE return the Elgin Marbles to Greece we will open the door to claims from other countries. Egypt will want its mummies back, Scotland will want its yard, and Australia will want Rolf Harris.