Parthenon Marbles, Controversy… Oh my! The Marbles have gone on loan, but what does this mean for the British Museum and Greece?

Marcus Aurelius observed the tremendous effort sometimes required to get out of bed in the morning. Bemoaning how instead of fulfilling his purpose as a human it was like ” [being] made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?” (Meditations, Book Five).

So dear readers, I’m not sure how many of you actually jumped out of bed this morning at the news that the Parthenon sculptures, possibly more popularised as ‘the Elgin Marbles had been loaned to the Hermitage Museum in Russia… but I know I did. To my mind this issue in particular highlights (at least to European minds) how important archaeology and history still is in national politics, identity and therefore controversy.

But what are these legendary marbles of archaeological and political controversy? Why are history bloggers feeling compelled to jump out of bed at the news of a loan?

The room containing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. --Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 December 2004
The room containing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. –Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 December 2004

Built in 447BC in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian War, the Parthenon itself has become a potent symbol of the new Greek nation. The sculptures which were acquired by the BM in 1816 and currently housed in the Duveen Gallery were collected by Elgin during his post as the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, between about 1801 and 1812. Under the authority of a firman (a legal document issued by the Ottoman Empire) Elgin was able to remove “any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures”. The issue being that only an Italian copy of this firman survives. The ambiguity of the document, Elgin’s motivations as well as the issuing by the Ottoman authorities, not by the Greek nation as it stands today is a huge sticking point.

The Eponymous 7th Ear  of Elgin by Anton Graff around 1788
The Eponymous 7th Earl of Elgin by Anton Graff around 1788. British Aristocrat with a penchant for classical civilization or a international looting criminal?

A quick Google search will tell you pretty much all you ever wanted to know about the controversy surrounding the debate and the numbers of people with very logical, ethical and well reasoned arguments on both sides of the fence. From national newspaper opinion pieces, to forum questions, to Stephen Fry urging the British Museum to do the ‘classy’ thing and return the Marbles (the video of the really excellent debate can be watched here).

At the heart of the Parthenon sculptures debate is the question can cultural heritage be owned, and if so, by whom?  The question of the ‘Elgin Marbles,’ is still one unlikely to be answered quickly. The impasse between the Greek and British representatives has become something of an archaeological cold war; with the British Museum (BM) on one hand and the new Acropolis Museum (AM) on the other. The mutually assured disagreement between the two has meant that the question of the marbles is often weighed down by political posturing and emotive dialogue; little in the way of a long term resolution. That was all before today’s news broke that the sculptures had been loaned to Russia.

The director of the BM Neil MacGregor told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, who questioned him on the BM’s decision:

“This is the first time ever that the people of Russia have been able to see this great moment of European art and European thought.”

“Mr MacGregor added that he hoped the Greek government would be “delighted”.

“In a blog for the museum’s website, he wrote that the British Museum had opened its doors in 1759 and the Hermitage just five years later – making them “almost twins… the first great museums of the European Enlightenment”.

(taken from the BBC article found here)

The whole issues gets horribly emotive very, very quickly, and lots of facts, figures and anecdotes are fired back and forth with more abandon than Dionysius on speed. Problem is that, as with anything, context is king. So far as I can figure, despite the assertions of many, the legality of Elgin’s actions cannot really be disputed.

The lack of international cohesion in law means that Elgin and the sculptures are being judged by different standards The 1970 UNESCO convention of and 1995 UNIDROIT convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (UNIDROIT 1995), provides some basis for cohesion between countries in the repatriation of illegally obtained objects. A recent legal claim of a stolen sarcophagus was brought by Turkish authorities against a Swiss art gallery is one such example. In this case, the proof that the object was stolen allowed legal action to be taken. Part of the issue with the Parthenon sculptures is that the length of time that has elapsed since their removal. As is was said by one Dr. Tinios at the 2000 Parliamentary Select Committee, the “legality of Elgin’s actions is not at issue”. Greece as a nation has not elected to sue for repatriation, could be used to suggest that either there is not enough evidence to prosecute or that Elgin did acquire the sculptures legally. The lack of legal challenge is compounded by Greece’s successful precedent in the repatriation of objects that were reviewed in court. 1982 UNESCO Mexico World Conference of Cultural Policies.

Phew… so technicalities over, where does that leave us on the issue of the sculptures?

Really it’s a question of cultural values and ultimately politics. The British Museum’s loan of  Ilissos statue to Russia while outwardly just between the two museums to mark the Hermitage’s birthday, can also be seen as a less than subtle move from the BM to demonstrate that the trustees speaketh the truth when they say that a loan applications will be considered no matter for what… as long as the objects are secure (not a problem for the AM) AND that they will be returned. For that to happen Greece would have to acknowledge the BM as the legitimate owner.

The Greek Prim-minister’s response to news of the loan was : “[It] provokes the Greek people,” he said on Friday, insisting that the loan effectively ended the British Museum’s argument that the Greek antiquities were immovable.

“The last British dogma about immovability has ceased to exist … the Parthenon and its sculptures were the object of pillage. We Greeks are identified with our history and culture which cannot be torn apart, loaned and ceded.”

….so that’s probably a no then.

Ultimately, the issue of the sculptures is an easy topic to make a snap or emotive  judgement about. It’ll be an interesting one to watch, with news circulating that Greece may actually pursue a legal claim for the return of the sculptures it would catapult archaeology and heritage onto the front pages for a long time. Whatever your opinion on the sculptures, whether they were obtained illegally or not, whether the BM has been a good custodian and whether Greece has a legal, cultural or ethical claim to have them back is entirely for you to decide. I for one will not argue for one or the other. But, I do think that the fact that people are talking and debating the importance of archaeology and ancient history as a living and significant part of modern western society can only be a good thing.

So, after by probably hugely clumsy attempt to avoid a partial view on the subject of the sculptures I would love to know what you think. Leave a message! Should the sculptures stay or should they go?

Thanks for reading,

Emma pinxit




One thought on “Parthenon Marbles, Controversy… Oh my! The Marbles have gone on loan, but what does this mean for the British Museum and Greece?

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