The Parthenon Friezes at the British Museum

At the end of the summer of 2007, the week before fall university classes began, Greece was on fire. The Peloponnese was uniformly scorched, nearly a hundred people were killed, rural economies were displaced, and flora and fauna indigenous only to Greek pine forests and mountainsides were burned, perhaps beyond any eventual recovery. Though the fires were barely held back from the famous antiquities of Olympia and Athens, other archaeologically priceless sites were not so fortunate .
Though some of the fires were attributed at their source to arsonists, Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, whose New Democracy party was returned to office this past September, is partially culpable in this tragedy. Karamanlis and other Greek officials were slow to acknowledge the severity of the fire emergency and have yet to admit the true extent of the damage.
“There are several well known ‘arsonists’ in Greece — garbage dumps (burning spontaneously), farmers burning brush, animal farmers burning land to sprout fresh grass for grazing,” Nikos Charalambides, director of Greenpeace in Greece, told a reporter from Reuters on October 1.
“But the biggest arsonist is the state, which has not clarified the use of land, leaving suburban forests vulnerable to rogue developers,” he added in the same piece.
“The lack of a national land registry and national zoning laws leave room for doubt about the characterization of land, whether it is forest or not,” told Reuters.
It is not a good time for antiquities, and the dire circumstances are of course more attributable to the traditional colonial superpowers than to Grecian malfeasance.
The blame for the theft of treasures from the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, the burning of Baghdad’s National Library, and the looting of more than 10,000 Ur, Sumerian, and Babylonian archaeological sites may be laid, in the name of Operation Iraqi Freedom, on the doorstep of the United States and bullied ally Great Britain.

It is in this poisonous atmosphere (additionally contaminated by pollution, global warming, and the threats of vandalism and terrorism) that the debate over who rightfully owns the Parthenon sculptures – or, more accurately, who owns the right to display the friezes – continues.

Beyond the intangible sense that Greek masterpieces belong in Greece, there are numerous logical and legal arguments both against and in favor of returning the Parthenon sculptures to their original site at the Athenian Acropolis.
Though the sculptures originated in the powerful city-state of Athens during the Fifth Century B.C., in 1816 the country known historically as Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman. This is the year Lord Thomas Elgin purchased the sculptures and moved them from to England . In 1830 the Greeks, supported by European countries including Britain, won their war for independence and established a sovereign nation. Thus, one argument goes, the Ottomans were not in position to grant acquisition of the sculptures. Additionally, Elgin’s reported bribery of Greek and Turkish officials calls the legality of the agreement to obtain the sculptures into question .
The British Museum, where the so-called Elgin Marbles have resided for nearly 200 years, has established itself, not, as its name implies, as a cultural collection representing Britain, but as a sort of all-surveys meta gallery. The museum also offers law-based platforms upon which to base its retention of the sculptures.
The museum maintains that, when executed, the purchase of the sculptures by Lord Elgin followed international law appropriate to the date .
The British have as well an abundance of rhetorical and aesthetic arguments that shore the museum’s claim to the sculptures from the irrationally nationalistic – the sculptures are part of England’s collective consciousness – to the petty – the museum in Athens, created with viewing the Acropolis in mind, charges admission while the British Museum does not
One position concerns the physical wellbeing of the marbles, with the museum maintaining that the environment in the Duveen Gallery has protected the sculptures from the corrosive pollution in Athens that has damaged those remaining on the Acropolis . Yet the museum has been criticized for its conservation of the sculptures, too, taking salvos in particular for the “overcleaning” incident of the late 1930s. Scholar John Boardman, who supports the return of the sculptures to Athens but presents an even-handed account of the arguments in his 2000 paper The Elgin Marbles: Matters of Fact and Opinion says that the marbles have always been handled brutishly, even by the Athenians who created them. The Athenians were hard on the temple, burning sacrifices and torches that marred the exposed stone. Ten years after its dedication, an earthquake caused some damage to the temple. The metopes were vandalized during the Fifth Century, when the temple was a Christian church. The north and south sides of the building were destroyed in 1687 by an explosion. Elgin broke some of the triglyphs while removing them. Yet had Elgin not taken the sculptures when he did, Boardman says such destruction would likely have continued through the modern times leaving modern searchers only drawings by which to imagine the friezes.
The British Museum has more at stake than the sculptures in this battle. Returning the pieces would create a precedent for the repatriation of pieces acquired under questionable circumstances (or even not) in many of the world’s major public collections. The British Museum, however, owns treasures including the head of Ramses and the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, the Iraqi winged bull arch, an Easter Island cult statue and the Benin bronzes from Nigeria. The Egyptians have asked for their pieces back, too.
Yet the mention of the British Museum’s antiquities collection circles back to thoughts of the depth of these galleries. The museum affords visitors the opportunity to look at pieces from Athens in a contemporaneous sense to those from Egypt, Phoenicia, Babylon, and Assyria.
A contingent of British society has long been vocal in agitating for the repatriation of the marbles (including Lord Byron). A 1926 editorial in The Science News Letter called “Returning Elgin Marbles to Athens Argued” states flatly “the Elgin marbles should find their ultimate home in Athens.”
Almost everyone agrees that the new Acropolis Museum, built in an austere and reverential style, would make an aesthetically pleasing gateway to view the restored sculptures. The design would allow the sculptures to be displayed in their original arrangement of the sides and corners following the original orientation of the Parthenon temple .
Further, the Greek Government has now proposed a sort of rotating display of the sculptures and has even mitigated its claims to the point of assuring the British Museum that some sort of Greek antiquity would always be available for display in the Duveen Gallery .
It would, of course, have been better if Lord Elgin had never taken the marbles. But there is no point in speculating on this possible past. Currently neither the Greek government, who has repeatedly shown poor stewardship of the environment in general and antiquities in particular, nor the British, who associate the marbles with their own idealized identities as pure democrats, deserves the marbles.
If a Solomon-like decision were to be made, some party would step forward and do what is best for the Parthenon sculptures, not the quarreling countries. The lost treasures of Iraq show that antiquities are not necessarily safe even in their rightful homes. Given the constant unrest in the Balkan states, the danger of damaging the sculptures by moving them, the ease of mobility in Europe afforded by the European Union and great and simple access to London, the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum, where, at least, they are in good health.
Art history has been torn apart and ruined by the steamroller of identity dominance, cultural relativism, and colonial detractors and apologists, but critical theory mostly concerns – and damages – only the contemporary. The treasures of the ancient world should be exempt from this nationalistic, new age folderol. Citizens of both Greece and Britain – and of all nations should find a commonality in global art history, and voice despair and outrage over the continued destruction of the equally valid visual culture of the rest of the Middle East.
Two Greek Antiquities Returned From United States. 2007. The Associated Press, September 19, 2007.
Cradle Of Mankind Is Destroyed By Looters And Invading Troops; DEATH OF HISTORY. 2007. The Independent (London), September 17, 2007, sec NEWS.
Firefighters Protect Olympia While Villages Burn. 2007. The Australian (Australia), August 28, 2007, sec WORLD.
Greek Authorities Begin Moving Acropolis Statues To New Home. 2007. Agence France Presse — English, October 14, 2007.
Returning Elgin Marbles To Athens Argued. 1926. The Science News-Letter 9, (276) (Jul. 24): 7.
Boardman, John. 2000. The Elgin Marbles: Matters of Fact and Opinion. International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 9, No. 2. 233-262.
Challis, Debbie. 2006. The Parthenon Sculptures: Emblems of British National Identity. The British Art Journal (Volume VII, Issue I) 33-39.
Gatopoulos, Derek, and Associated Press Writer. 2007. Greece Recovers Stolen Ancient Statue From Switzerland. Associated Press Worldstream, June 14, 2007.
Heyd, Thomas. 2003. Rock Art Aesthetics And Cultural Appropriation. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, (1) (Winter): 37-46.
Petsalis-Diomidis, Alexia. 2003. Twenty-First Century Perspectives On The Parthenon. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 123, : 191-6.
Stinson, Jeffrey, and Joanna Kakissis. 2007. Deadly Fires Take Toll On Greece’s Spirit; Failure Of Officials, Government Leave Citizens Frustrated, Ashamed. USA Today, August 31, 2007, sec MONEY.
Triandafyllou, Vassilis. 2007. Ancient Olympia Saved But Deadly Fires Spread. The Daily Telegraph (Australia), August 28, 2007, sec WORLD.
Online Resource: The Case for the Return, London, England, 2007. http://www.parthenonuk.com/the_case_for_the_return.php
Online Resource: Will Britain lose its Marbles? If The British Museum Returned Lord Elgin’s Treasures To Greece, How Safe Would Any Loot Be?, Salon, February 2005. http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/02/05/marbles/index.html
Online Resource: Case Study: The Elgin Marbles, The American University, Washington, D.C., 1997 http://www.american.edu/TED/monument.htm