Last week, the Greek government declared that they will not be suing the British Museum over their prized collection of renowned sculptures, the Elgin Marbles, which once adorned the Parthenon; a Greek temple that stands as possibly ancient Greece’s greatest creation. The reasoning behind the decision, according to Greece’s culture minister, is simple: “You cannot go to court over every issue… Besides, in international courts, the outcome is uncertain.”
This does not mean though that Greece has admitted defeat – far from it. As he went on to say, “The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political.” Greece is in it for the long haul, but at what costs? According to the British public, which generally favors a return of the sculptures, not much. But I believe there’s much to be lost, especially in this feud that tends to favor emotion over logic; nationalism over internationalism, and falsehoods over reality.
The sculptures themselves were crafted by the greatest sculptor of the time, Pheidias. They were meant to decorate the Parthenon’s exterior. Built through the spoils of war, the Parthenon is a symbol of past Athenian power and glory. It is a testament to the greatness of Athens in ancient times, with its invention of democracy and immortal historical figures such as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Aristophanes; and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. As one of the world’s most majestic and recognizable structures, it is the foremost example of the grandeur of Doric architecture. As a result of its iconic imagery, the Parthenon is even incorporated into the UNESCO logo.
Despite my protests, I do think those wishing a return of the sculptures do possess some sound arguments. I would like to outline a few crucial factors in their stance, along with the points of those who do not want to see the sculptures go back to Athens. These are the arguments commonly brought forth by each respective side:
THE ARGUMENTS FOR (The Restitutionists)
– Ethically, you cannot deny modern Greeks objects that are symbolic of their rich, ancient past. Ancient Greece invented democracy, the Olympics, and literary forms such as the comedy and tragedy. The ancient Greeks quite possibly perfected the depiction of the human form in sculpture. And as well, they have left the enduring legacy of architecture as an art form – the Parthenon being the prime icon of this achievement. Ultimately, to deprive a nation of its pride is tragic. Thus, the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece; the genesis of their creation.
– Furthermore, Greece can house these sculptures in the Acropolis Museum. Therefore, the sculptures in London can be reunited with the remaining marbles in their original layout. Visitors could see the sculptures against the backdrop of the Parthenon.
– The sculptures have suffered damage while under the stewardship of the British Museum. Attempts by the BM to conserve them, using sandpaper, chisels and acid, caused damage beyond repair.
– It is questionable whether Lord Elgin was ever truly given permission to remove the sculptures in the first place. Many would say the taking of the marbles was an act of cultural vandalism. In fact, the taking of cultural treasures is so intertwined with Lord Elgin’s legacy, that the term “Elginism” is a part of the English vernacular.
THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST
– Returning the Elgin Marbles would set a legal precedent. The British Museum, under the authority granted to them by the British government, is in full possession of the sculptures. They cannot legally return items from their collection: “The Trustees of the British Museum holds it collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by the British Museum Act (1963).” If the sculptures were to be returned, who’s to say that other museums might not have to give back their legally obtained artworks as well? This would make for a “slippery slope,” as the statute of limitation pertaining to the sculptures has long since ceased.
– Even if the sculptures were to be repatriated, many of the original sculptures have succumbed to the ravages of decay and loss. A layout of the sculptures in Athens would never be complete.
– In contrast, the British have protected their Parthenon sculptures from the air pollution of Athens and the hostility that occurred during the Greek War of Independence. It was in this conflict that the Parthenon was used as munitions store by the Ottomans, and subsequently attacked by opposing forces.
– Lord Elgin was able to secure a royal decree from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to take what sculptures he wanted to. Though the original document is lost, a version translated into Italian and then into English says: “when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.”
– Where else, in Athens, their set of Parthenon sculptures can be seen in their homeland, and against the backdrop of the Parthenon itself; in London, the Elgin Marbles can be seen in the wider context of world history, and how the sculptures influenced other civilizations, or how Ancient Greece differed from, say, Ancient Egypt. The marbles at the British Museum are a vital part in this story.
Those are the main arguments of the issue at hand. However, this is a saga that is shrouded in numerous misconceptions. The first of these is the would-be perpetrator of the crime, Lord Elgin.
Such is the fervor that surrounds the extraction of the sculptures from the Parthenon at the hands of an imperialistic Englishman, that many simply assume Elgin stole some of these mighty emblems of Athenian power.
Of course, A) Elgin was a Scotsman, not an Englishman, and, B) he was clearly not a thief.
Indeed, this is what is so frustrating about the debate. Elgin has been shafted in such a manner by the public and media, that too many disregard the good intentions he had and the positive results of his actions.
The level of hatred that has been directed at Elgin truly surprises me. Bizarrely, a classics scholar at Cambridge has said, “If Elgin today had went and dismantled a building immensely precious to another country’s identity, we would regard him in the same light as we regard Nazi’s stripping places that they occupied.” It’s as if Elgin were the Benedict Arnold of the art world; a historic figure who is not the byword of betraying one’s country necessarily, but the personification of malicious art thievery.
And therein lies the rub. Yes, Elgin is a continually lambasted figure in a decidedly hot-button issue, but like Arnold, his legacy is more complicated than most initially think.
In 1799, Lord Elgin took up his post as Ambassador to the Sublime Porte (Istanbul). At this point in time during the history of mainland Greece, it was then part of the Ottoman Empire and had been since the Ottomans invaded and captured Athens in 1456. So, by the time Elgin decided to have some of the sculptures removed from Athens, much of Greece had been under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years. That’s far from an “occupation” as some would say of Turkey’s historic rule in Greece.
And another misconception: Elgin wanted these sculptures as decoration for his Scottish estate.
Actually, what Elgin wanted to do was to make casts and drawings of the Parthenon available to British artists. He wanted exposure of ancient Greek art in Britain. To this end, he assembled an array of artists who began work in Athens in 1800. Far from being uncultured, Elgin was a man of the Enlightenment.
And yes, the castings and drawings did serve a dual purpose. They were indeed used to help furnish examples for the decoration of his estate.
Yet, there’s another glaring misconception.
It is one which alleges that Lord Elgin obtained the sculptures through the use of bribery and corruption.
Again, that’s a myth. He did not purchase or steal the sculptures from the Parthenon, but was given them as a diplomatic gesture. He received a firman (license and letter of instruction) in gratitude for Britain’s defeat of French forces in Ottoman Egypt. Furthermore, its presentation to the local authorities in Athens was accompanied by a high-ranking official who participated in the application of the firman. No one challenged Elgin, because he was able to lawfully take the sculptures as granted by the Sultan.
Elgin did give gifts to the Sultan and his circle, along with the authorities in Athens. However, this was the custom at the time. Even Elgin received gifts from the Sultan in return. A more modern interpretation of these “bribes” is akin to that of giving a tip to a waiter: they helped speed work along, and Elgin didn’t want to be rude to the Ottomans.
Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering why Elgin removed the sculptures to begin with. The reason is that they weren’t being taken care of properly. Ottoman soldiers would regularly hack off arms or legs from the sculptures to sell to tourists interested in the mysterious Grecian wonders before them. Otherwise, the sculptures were being used as target practice, or being grounded down to sell for lime. In addition, a mosque could be found inside the pillars of the site.
After a powder magazine had exploded inside the Parthenon from being besieged by the Venetians in 1687, it was a ruin. Besides Western tourists, no one seemed to understand the importance of the Parthenon and its sculptures.
Clearly, though, Lord Elgin did understand their importance.
He went to great lengths to transport the marbles to Britain. The events that unfolded were tumultuous and led to him going bankrupt.
First, a shipment of the marbles was lost at sea, and had to be salvaged two years later (none of the sculptures were lost). Obviously, that was a costly undertaking.
But his most disastrous decision was to take a detour via Paris, while not knowing that war between Britain and France had broken out again. He was then under house arrest in France for three years. While being released by the French, he made a deal with them saying that, if summoned, he would return to France. In England, this made him unemployable in regards to getting another position as a diplomat.
To make matters worse, when he returned to Britain, he discovered that his wife was having an affair with a neighbor of his. The ensuing divorce caused considerable public scandal.
Furthermore, his health had been destroyed while serving as an ambassador in Constantinople. Plagues, fevers, melanoma, and syphilis afflicted him. In particular, his case of syphilis was most serious because it caused disfigurement in an unfortunate spot: his nose. Part of it had to be cut off.
Virtually penniless, Elgin was in dire straits. A series of bad decisions and extremely poor luck cost him financially. Despite this, he still wanted to have the sculptures housed in the British Museum in London. To cover his expenses, he had asked for a high offer, but the British government did not see fit to match it. He could have accepted other high offers, especially one from Napoleon, but he was adamant that the sculptures should benefit British culture specifically.
The matter of acquiring the sculptures was not at all straightforward. A debate in the House of Commons was held regarding the subject, and a special committee was formed to make sure that the objects were legally obtained. After rigorous examination, the committee was satisfied that they were. In 1816, the British Museum acquired the Parthenon sculptures.
Their effect on the general public, artists, and even European powers cannot be underestimated. The sculptures greatly contributed to a revival of interest in ancient Greek culture. Their weathered state set them a part from the more pristine Roman copies that academics and connoisseurs admired at the time.
The Romantic poet, John Keats, described his reaction to the marbles thus:
My spirit is too weak—mortalityWeighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,And each imagined pinnacle and steepOf godlike hardship tells me I must dieLike a sick eagle looking at the sky.Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weepThat I have not the cloudy winds to keepFresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.Such dim-conceived glories of the brainBring round the heart an undescribable feud;So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rudeWasting of old time—with a billowy main—A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
However, his celebrity counterpart, Lord Byron, saw the taking of the sculptures in a much different light:
“Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate.”
(If you must ask, I prefer Keats to Byron – Keats is more inspiring with his melancholy fantasies).
And this is where the debate gets messy. The Restitutionists love to quote that passage from Byron, but the notion that the sculptures would have been better off in Greece is definitely a romantic one. Byron, as a poet, would have preferred to have seen the marbles disintegrate than be preserved. Ruins were a muse for Romantic poets and artists in the early 1800’s, but most scholars today agree that if the sculptures had stayed in Athens, they would be in much worse condition than they are now.
“AHA! Not so fast,” the Restitutionist exclaims. If I was engaged in a debate with one right now, they would cite the British Museum’s “horrible” cleaning of the sculptures in 1938.
The truth is, they would be right in saying that the cleaning was “horrible” to a certain extent. However, in 1938, chisels, chemicals and brass wire brushes were – as abhorrent as it may sound now – standard practice. In point of fact, a conference involving both British and Greek scholars in 1999 came to the agreement that the practices used in 1938 (although unauthorized by the BM) were common at the time. It was also revealed in this same conference that the Greek Archaeological Service had employed the same methods for decades. For example, in 1953, the Greeks used steel chisels and brass wire brushes on a frieze of the Parthenon’s sister temple in Athens, the Hephaisteion.
Simply put, the problem with conservation sometimes is that conservators might have to revert the mistakes of previous hands – what practice which may seem fashionable and beneficial now, may in the future be deemed as harmful.
“BUT,” the Restitutionist loudly declares, “the Hephaeisteion is not the Parthenon; the Parthenon has been treated so well by the Greeks since their independence.”
That is a wrong assumption. If my dear Restitutionist wants more examples, I can gladly show how uncaring the Greeks – until fairly recently – have been to the Parthenon. In fact, in the immortal words of Lou Reed, let’s take a “walk on the wild side.”
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Nikolaos Balanos endangered the Parthenon and its parts by his restoration work. His method of stapling fragments together using iron bars that eventually corroded and expanded, causing the marble to split and shatter, was terribly damaging. Indeed, his practices were not even conventional for that time, and certainly ran counter to the how the ancient Greeks handled their structures.
In addition, the marbles left by Elgin rapidly deteriorated over the years. Atmospheric pollution greatly added to this noticeable decrease in quality. After sculptures that had remained on the west pediment were lifted down in 1977, one Greek scholar noted how “the industrial pollution of modern Athens had wreaked havoc upon their delicate surface.”
If the sculptures were to be returned to Athens, and set side by side against each other, the inferior condition of the marbles not taken by Elgin would be readily apparent.
But the most messy business in this whole affair is the subject of modern Greeks and how they have some moral right to their sculptures. The problem is, this claim would never hold up in court. The world-leading cultural property expert, Professor John Henry Merryman of Stanford University, concluded that the “modern state of Greece has no legal, moral, or ethical case for the return of the marbles.”
Still, it’s odd that the Greeks would make this claim. Given how 2,500 years separate modern Greeks from those of Pericles, it’s really a trifle to suggest that they deserve their sculptures. I think the blood in the veins of contemporary Greeks is much different than it was in the 5th century B.C. Much migration and intermarriage has occurred during that long span of time.
To me, Greek nationalism is the root problem of this whole debate. It panders to the emotions, and not logic.
Tellingly, the official Greek position almost never makes no mention of the Parthenon sculptures that are housed in collections around Europe, besides the British Museum. The framework of the case for restitution is entirely focused on those that belong to the British. The truth is, many of the sculptures can be found in museums in Paris, Vienna, the Vatican, Munich, Wurzburg, and Copenhagen. The marbles at the British Museum might be especially important, yet to single the British out when numerous sculptures can be found in other museums is absurd. Call me a cynic, but it shows to me that Greek government is primarily interested in the positive publicity such a return of the sculptures would turn out to be in Greece.
Nevertheless, I must quit for the moment debunking myths and discrediting the Greek position, and instead advance why I think the marbles should stay in London. I believe my reasoning is quite simple.
The official position that the British Museum often takes is that the marbles play a vital function in their comprehensive and encyclopedic collection in London. It’s apparent to me that the sculptures can their own place in the context of world history at the British Museum, while the sculptures in Athens can be seen against the backdrop of the Parthenon itself. It’s important that the sculptures can be seen free of charge, in the second most visited art museum in the world (the Acropolis Museums is not even in the Top 50). I’m usually not a fan of utilitarian arguments, but for such iconic objects as the Parthenon sculptures, they must really be seen by the most people possible. Certainly, I personally would not have seen them twice if the Elgin Marbles were not in London.
Plus, the bogus argument that the sculptures would not cause the return of other works of art is quite reckless. Greece politicians have gone on record asking for the return of Bassai sculptures in the British Museum, the Nike of Samothrace and Venus de Milo, both in the Louvre, and the Aigina sculptures in Munich.
Combine this with the fact that the sculptures were legally acquired, and are free to see and are seen by many, then the decision to keep the Elgin Marbles in London is obvious to me.
I really hate to go against Stephen Fry on this one. I greatly respect the man, but he’s wrong. This tactic to appeal to the emotions is sometimes necessary, but it diverts attention away from the facts. His comments are primarily based on the self-deprecating feelings the British seem to have in regards to their imperial past. It’s important to remember that, while the British Museum is a witness of empire, it is not an instrument of empire. Again, this is another pitiful case of nationalism getting in the way.
Look, he said the “Pantheon,” not the Parthenon. They’re two different things.