The fate of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens
December 6, 2002 3:30 PM   Subscribe

The so-called Elgin Marbles A reminder that many of the objects that you love at your local museum actually came from a place in which they often have an even greater meaning.
posted by feelinglistless (38 comments total)

 
Um, your link directly contradicts your post. Your "so-called" and "actually came from a place in which they often have an even greater meaning" seem to imply that you think the marbles belong to Greece and should be returned (a position with which I agree); the link is to a rabid screw-the-Greeks partisan, whose position can be summed up as "Yeah, we stole your stuff, but your house burned down afterwards and your other stuff got damaged, so now we're not giving it back!" Great logic.
posted by languagehat at 3:56 PM on December 6, 2002


I consider that a very unrepresentative summation.
posted by rudyfink at 4:17 PM on December 6, 2002


the british museum embarrasses me. just give it back for christs sake. give it all back.
posted by gravelshoes at 4:31 PM on December 6, 2002


Don't give any of it back. This sums it all up:

The modern Greeks are not the sole heirs to the achievements of the ancient Greeks
posted by rushmc at 4:42 PM on December 6, 2002


Odd link, since it's quite informative (in a way I wasn't aware) about the way that as much damage appears to have been inflicted on the marbles by Greeks around the time of Elgin.

Anyway, send them back, so that the Parthenon can look like Britain's abbeys and monasteries and bombed churches, which were themselves fucked over by people with an excessively religious or ideological streak. They just look a bit sad in the British Museum.

But isn't the history of the Parthenon's slow degradation in a way as important as the desire to see it 'as it was'? After all, 'as it was' is a kind of made-up thing: you read up on the history of English cathedrals, and it's a succession of projects, knocking down one tower to build another, changing the fascia, etc etc.
posted by riviera at 4:49 PM on December 6, 2002


It's often embarrassing to be British, but it's never embarrassing to come from Yorkshire. I think you'll find they're in the British Museum, not the Bradford Museum of Wool and Sheepy Stuff.

Seriously, I'm not that familiar with the history of this. I know Greece and Turkey have variously beaten the crap out of each other at various points in the last 100 years or so and that some significant pieces of Byzantine architecure was destroyed in the process. I'm certain that *at some point* there was a certain amount of justification, albeit still very snooty, for hanging on to them. That time is more than passed.

The argument that the pinnacle of Greek achievement can be seen in the context of many other civilisations that made great advances only at the BM. It makes some sense, but that ought to be an agreed loan. Saying "fuck off they're ours" is a bit tight.

I remember reading relatively recently a proposal from the Greeks whereby there would be a British Museum in Greece where they would be kept. The BM would effectively retain possession at least in terms of it being them looking after them if not actual legal by virtue of status quo possession. I think Greece had to concede a certain point with respect to the BM's 'right' to look after them to even propose this. It seemed to me a strange thing to do as a nice bit of concession like that would get the perfidy generators working in overdrive. I can't find a link unfortunately. Sorry.
posted by vbfg at 4:50 PM on December 6, 2002


After all, 'as it was' is a kind of made-up thing: you read up on the history of English cathedrals, and it's a succession of projects, knocking down one tower to build another, changing the fascia, etc etc.

Yeah, cuz mass-produced concrete frieze forms (can you spot the Mickey Mouse ears?) are every bit as good as that Parthanon art stuff.
posted by rushmc at 5:27 PM on December 6, 2002


Anyway, send them back, so that the Parthenon can look like Britain's abbeys and monasteries and bombed churches

You certainly don't want the marbles on the Parthenon, given how badly pollution has degraded the rest of the buildings on the Acropolis. Hence the decision to move the Caryatids indoors and replace them with marble copies.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:34 PM on December 6, 2002


Elgin Marbles humor: this spoof took in a Belgian newspaper (via the Guardian).
posted by thomas j wise at 6:08 PM on December 6, 2002


Just curious, but have the Greeks made full-scale copies of any of these great artifacts? It would seem to me that well done replicas of the marbles or the acropolis would reflect far more of what Ancient Greece really was to all those who sought its glory. (In the New World, entire cities are replicated for a far shorter history.)

If not, are they only satisfied warehousing decaying ruins?
posted by kablam at 6:16 PM on December 6, 2002


Here's a fairly evenhanded (if excessively brief) account. On the idea that the Brits saved them from the savage Greeks:
Doubt was cast on this position by author William St Clair, in his book Lord Elgin and The Marbles. He claimed that in the 1930s, the British Museum had cleaned the marbles with chisels and wire brushes. This had taken off a layer of paint and the patina, and had been done in a mistaken belief that the marbles should have been pure white. The museum denies that serious damage was done. Greek officials told a conference in London organised by the museum that the damage was irreparable.
And here's a thorough demolishing of the idea that Elgin had permission to remove them.
posted by languagehat at 6:40 PM on December 6, 2002


I am not an expert, but I have always felt the preservation issue was a giant red-herring in this case. Elgin professed to have saved the marbles from looters, but that really means just from other looters like himself. The British Museum subsequently damaged the artifacts in severe ways, but they were probably following acceptable practices of the day. The Greeks did the same type of “cleaning” to other artifacts in their possession. Finally, it is not clear to me that either England or Greece would be more likely than the other to have problems in the future that would threaten the survival of the carving.

Although both sides try to obfuscate the issue, it really comes down to a question of ethics. The British Museum can point to a valid, but shady, legal claim tainted by issues of colonialism and imperialism. The Greeks can’t force the Brits to hand it back, but they can try to embarrass the Brits into capitulating.

To me, the parts of the issue that are most interesting are the larger social and historical questions. It is my impression that the general sentiment in Britain (and more so in other areas of Europe) is that the imperial period was one of great excesses and many evils. As a result, they hope to take the side of the oppressed whenever possible, and (for example) feel they are in a position to lecture the U.S. about the perils of treading down an imperial path. However, the rubber meets the road in the case of the Elgin marbles. Britain is being asked to give back one of the crown jewels of it’s ill-gotten gains, and it is difficult to part with such treasures. It is even more challenging for the British Museum, because if they capitulate, this will only be the tip of the iceberg. During the 19th century museums all across Western Europe and the U.S. collected cultural treasures from all over the world using techniques that are not considered ethical today (and may not have been considered ethical then).

Another interesting observation comes from looking at an even larger historical context. The Parthenon was a structure built by Athens as a monument to their own imperial might at the time. It was made possible by (presumably) ill-gotten gains and by abundant slave labor. Of course today the Greeks see this as an issue in cultural patrimony, but the irony is that they are trying to reclaim their trophy of imperialism by painting the British as imperial evil-doers. Isn’t it funny how history turns?
posted by Tallguy at 8:35 PM on December 6, 2002


Um, your link directly contradicts your post.

That was the idea. Although the piece is a touch biased, the salient points are there. I was trying to balance things out a bit, and at the same time show how conflicting and confusing the views can be.

I can't type at great length now, but I will say I've always like the British Museum in Greece version.
posted by feelinglistless at 11:40 PM on December 6, 2002


Excellent comment, Tallguy, especially regarding the turnback. Sweet historical irony.

There's really no question they should be given back, but it would be nice if the Greeks could find some face-saving way for the British to manage it -- like a museum branch in Greece. They seem to be lighting a fire on this issue in part out of a desire -- unlikely at this point -- to have them back by the time of the 2004 Olympics, which has gained a grassroots ally, which together see the New Acropolis Museum the Greeks are building as the suitable home (for which it was always intended). Perhaps some kind of academic partnership could be established between the two institutions that would admit the British curators as appreciated protectors of the artifacts.

feelinglistless, fie on your posting an op-ed with which you disagreed as the sole link to support your opposite position, especially without finding us more information about the current situation.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on December 6, 2002


In Greece, the conventional wisdom is that one should always endeavor to dine on the products of the local area, simply because they taste better. The peppers of Florina taste better in Florina than they do after being shipped to Athens; the local tsipouro of a small mountain village is exquisite when sipped while sitting outside at the village taverna and merely good when ordered at a restaurant in Thessaloniki.

All other questions aside, it seems to me that it would be much more enjoyable for visitors to view the marbles in their place of origin, where they can see them in context.

A modest proposal: Greece has obviously lost her marbles, and things aren't going so swimmingly for British monarchy, so I propose a trade... the Elgin marbles in exchange for the former King of Greece, who clearly doesn't belong here, just as the marbles don't belong there. Consider the benefits: a nice transfusion of bright blue blood for the BM; Greece gets a new cultural project to argue about; visitors get to spend their money in new, enjoyable ways. Voila, everybody happy.
posted by taz at 11:47 PM on December 6, 2002


There's really no question they should be given back

That's a preposterous contention. You can't apply modern sensibilities to history, and it would be especially foolish to do so when it has worked out in such a way as to benefit all mankind. There was often very little sense that cultural and artistic treasures represented any sort of "heritage" in past times, and in practice many had no compunction about selling them off--or even destroying them, actively or through negligence. Things may be different now (although I'm not particularly impressed with Greece's preservation efforts thus far), but you can't put a cat back into a bag that it's been let out of for centuries. If Greece (never mind for the moment that there was no political entity known as "Greece" when these works were created), Egypt, etc. had valued these things more and made a legitimate effort to protect them in the past, then their claim might carry a little more weight. Nations, like individuals, cannot correct past mistakes (assuming that they were mistakes) on either side now--that's the same argument the slavery reparations crew makes so unconvincingly; all you can do is try to do the best you can with what you have today for all concerned, and in cases like this one, that group includes the entire present and future populations of the planet.
posted by rushmc at 12:17 AM on December 7, 2002


So, taz, are you proposing that they keep the former King in the British Museum? Granted, it is a good-sized gallery that he'd be occupying, but you'd think he'd go stir-crazy after a little while. (Unless he gets the run of the museum and can wander around and sip overpriced espresso in the Great Court.)

Seriously, though, I've only heard about this issue as it relates to the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles. Is it wider? For instance, I've never heard of the Turkish government asking Germany for the contents of the Pergamon Museum.
posted by Vidiot at 12:55 AM on December 7, 2002


are you proposing that they keep the former King in the British Museum?

Yes, Vidiot, I think this is a good plan - if the curators there will agree to clean him with chisels and wire brushes...
posted by taz at 1:49 AM on December 7, 2002


an important reason that the british museum is refusing to budge is that returning the marbles would open up almost the entire collection of stolen goods to legitimate claims for their return.

I like the idea of a royal gallery. it'd would be great to keep the queen in a glass case with a button you could push to make her wave
posted by gravelshoes at 2:39 AM on December 7, 2002


taz. The Queen's husband, Phil the Greek, is Greek. We would very much like to give him back.
posted by vbfg at 3:54 AM on December 7, 2002


Some gifts just go on giving, don't they?
posted by taz at 4:50 AM on December 7, 2002


If Greece (never mind for the moment that there was no political entity known as "Greece" when these works were created), Egypt, etc. had valued these things more

Jesus, rushmc, did you think about this for half a second before you typed it? Yeah, there was no "political entity known as Greece" at the time, and why was that? Because the Greeks were ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and those who tried to change that situation ran the risk of being impaled (pictorial link that might upset the tender-natured). They couldn't protect their own children from being hauled off to Constantinople, brought up as Muslims, and impressed into the army; how the fuck do you suggest they might have showed how much they "valued" the Parthenon marbles? Tell you what, I'll take over your house, enslave your family, and sell off your possessions, and then when you whine about it afterwards I'll tell you you should have valued them more. And you might avoid saying things like "That's a preposterous contention" unless you just like hearing the sound of your own certainty.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on December 7, 2002


Because the Greeks were ruled by the Ottoman Empire

Actually, I was referring to the time the items were created, not when they were removed, since it is the concept of "ownership" that is being debated.

And you might avoid saying things like "That's a preposterous contention"

You're reinforcing my point, since the "preposterous" part was the absolutist nature of dhartung's remark, not the opinion he expressed.
posted by rushmc at 9:51 AM on December 7, 2002


Yeah, cuz mass-produced concrete frieze forms (can you spot the Mickey Mouse ears?) are every bit as good as that Parthanon art stuff.

Way to miss the point, and not pay attention to the actual link. Which was, since you hadn't grasped it, along the lines of saying that you wouldn't knock down St Paul's Cathedral in the spirit of wanting to restore the church burnt to a crisp in 1666. Or knock down the west towers of Westminster Abbey, because they were a nasty modern addition. There was a reason to leave the burnt-out shell of Coventry Cathedral as a memorial near the new church. And so on.
posted by riviera at 10:01 AM on December 7, 2002


If I had been responding to the original link with that comment, rather than someone's comment, I might have chosen to address that. Try reading before you flame.
posted by rushmc at 1:25 PM on December 7, 2002


or try not flaming before you think...
posted by gravelshoes at 1:44 PM on December 7, 2002


Actually, I was referring to the time the items were created, not when they were removed, since it is the concept of "ownership" that is being debated.

rushmc, this bit of logic is pretty suspect. By this logic, the U.S. should have nothing to complain about if the Liberty Bell (made in 1751) were stolen, if historic Williamsburg were razed, or if the Grand Canyon (formed 5-20 million years ago) was flattened.

Britain probably has a technically legal claim to the Elgin marbles, although they were clearly obtained under shady circumstances. That is why I stated this argument goes beyond law to ethics. Does Britain have the right to keep all of the plunder it amassed? And like most questions, the outcome of Britain’s decisions will have much more to do with the world today. Most Britons I know like to think of themselves as paragons of fair-play, lawfulness, and principles. The more they fight issues like the repatriation of the Elgin marbles, the more difficult it becomes to support this view in the eyes of the world.
posted by Tallguy at 1:50 PM on December 7, 2002


Everything anyone would want to know ...

I don't like the article's implication that the marble were shielded from further destruction. If I was one of the marbles I wouldn't have thought losing my head and bundled off to some strange land was any kind of safety.
posted by feelinglistless at 4:17 PM on December 7, 2002


By this logic, the U.S. should have nothing to complain about if the Liberty Bell (made in 1751) were stolen, if historic Williamsburg were razed, or if the Grand Canyon (formed 5-20 million years ago) was flattened

Not really. The U.S. currently are in possession of those things, so of course it would be wrong for someone to come take them. If someone had made off with the Grand Canyon a couple hundred years ago, well, then we could talk.

I don't like the article's implication that the marble were shielded from further destruction. If I was one of the marbles I wouldn't have thought losing my head and bundled off to some strange land was any kind of safety.

Have you seen the current state of the pollution-eroded works on the Acropolis, feelinglistliss? I don't think a mass of melted marble slag really qualifies for a work of art anymore.
posted by rushmc at 7:06 PM on December 7, 2002


rushmc: Sorry, you're right, your parenthesis does refer to when the works were created. But my point still stands, because at that time the Athenians did protect them, so when you complain that they weren't "valued" you must be talking about the later period when Greece was ruled by foreigners. And if you think the Brits did so much better at preserving them, you need to read this:
The British Museum have always claimed that the sculptures were very well cared for. Actually in the 1930s the sculptures were "cleaned" under the wrong belief that they were originally "brilliant white". The so-called cleaning was never the intention of the curators who knew very well that the sculptures made out of Pentelicon marble would have acquired a mellow honey colour when exposed to the air. Moreover the sculptures showed clear traces of colour that the scraping destroyed. The cleaning was done at the instruction of Lord Duveen who financed the building of the galleries for exhibiting the Marbles. The cleaning carried out with wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum caused serious and irretrievable damage that was admitted by the authorities of the Museum. However, the British Museum officials kept the full report on the incident carefully under wraps until a Cambridge historian revealed it in his book "Lord Elgin and the Marbles, Oxford University Press, 1998."
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on December 8, 2002


but this is not an argument about whether it was right to take the marbles in the first place, but whether they should be given back now. the 'who did/didn't look after them' argument is simply not relevant, and is just a smokescreen used by the bm (and others) to avoid the real issue. purely as a matter of national pride for greece (and the uk) they should be returned. modern britons have nothing in common with the people who built stonehenge, but the structure is still vital in defining our sense of self as britons. the whole thing stinks of outdated colonial snobbery - imagine if the greeks had pinched stonehenge, or if the marbles had come from a 'greater' european power such as france.

enough already
posted by gravelshoes at 8:24 AM on December 8, 2002


And if you think the Brits did so much better at preserving them, you need to read this

I certainly am not claiming that the British stewardship was exemplary.

purely as a matter of national pride for greece (and the uk) they should be returned

This is the argument with which I probably most disagree. "National pride" is, to me, a totally vacuous and borderline dangerous concept. Preserving and maintaining ancient works of art for current and future generations to see, enjoy, and learn from should not be tied to boosting the image of some political entity. These things have become mankind's heritage and shouldn't be used as poker chips in some sort of international game of one-upmanship.
posted by rushmc at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2002


I disagree. I see stonehenge as british cultural heritage first, then 'mankinds' (why is 'mankind' better served in london than athens anyway? I fear you have never tackled the tube at rush hour)

but whatever. move along...
posted by gravelshoes at 10:16 AM on December 8, 2002


Late but pertinent: How the Belgians lost their marbles: a major Belgian newspaper, De Morgen, working on a skeleton staff at the weekend, fell for an Artnose hoax claiming that the Marbles were carved by a Devon stonemason, Phil Davies.
posted by raygirvan at 3:39 AM on December 9, 2002


Oh, man, that's funny -- thanks for passing it along, raygirvan!
posted by languagehat at 9:28 AM on December 9, 2002


"Some of the world's leading museums have joined forces to declare that they will not hand back ancient artefacts to their countries of origin."
posted by rushmc at 10:31 AM on December 9, 2002


very timely. I wonder why the bm didn't sign up...?
posted by gravelshoes at 2:10 PM on December 9, 2002


Nice post rushmc. Definitely an interesting list.

The absences on the list are also very interesting. Most of the U.S. museums on that list are art museums. In general, these top-tier U.S. art museums have somewhat unique curatorial policies. Most of famous U.S. museums with a more anthropological bent are not represented on this list. I am thinking of museums like the Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, or any of the Peabody Museums. This might not mean anything. Then again, the art museums have historically been more inclined to fetishize their artifacts and study and exhibit them in ways that divorce the objects from their historical and cultural roots. It might be expected that they would have a different reaction to the calls for repatriation.

While I understand that the curators feel their collections are under attack, I think dialogue might be the best approach. For example, museums have long engaged in swapping of artifacts, either permanently or under the terms of short- or long-term loans. These can be used to expand a museum’s breadth (well, gee, we don’t have any examples of Bronze Age X from that part of the world!) or to expand a museum’s depth (we have more examples of Y than anyone else in the world!). After all, the goals of museums are education and research. Hopefully as this issue unfolds all sides will keep this in mind.
posted by Tallguy at 9:21 PM on December 9, 2002


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