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"The marbles belong to the British Museum ...
March 25, 2001 4:32 AM   Subscribe

"The marbles belong to the British Museum ... which does not intend to return any part of the collection to its country of origin," PM Tony Blair ruling out the return to Greece of the so-called "Elgin" marbles, the stone carvings that were unceremoniously hacked off the Parthenon by the Earl of Elgin and carted back to Britain. Nearly 200 years later and despite years of Greek protest, the British Museum is not budging and has maintained thoughout that it has been protecting these antiquities from almost certain destruction (although their own record in this regard has not been great). Should museums today be returning treasures that have were obtained though such looting?
posted by lagado (29 comments total)

 
Don't forget that originally, Thomas Bruce, the 7th earl of Elgin, wanted to bring the marble friezes from the Parthenon back to Scotland. He had originally planned to use them to decorate his country home.

Wouldn't you like to have a piece of the Parthenon on the deck of your house? Certainly would look nice with Christmas lights decorating it in the winter, too.
posted by crog at 5:37 AM on March 25, 2001


(crog - hahaha)

Well, he did return the Stone of Scone. But, I seem to recall that there was an incident in the 50's in which some Scottish youths broke in to Westminster Abbey and actually took back the national treasure, in the name of all Scottish nationalism and patriotism... They got it through to Scotland, past the border gaurds, past the police. When caught, Scotts gov't. handed it right back to the Brits with all apologies! Urban legend has it however, that the Brits were given back a clever copy of the stone and the real stone has been in Scotland since the 1950's.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 6:34 AM on March 25, 2001


I had an interesting discussion about this last autumn with a Greek professor at the Parthenon, where a group was passing out leaflets in support of the return. While on the surface it's very easy for us to get all self-righteous and "return what was stolen," she pointed out that the precedent set by the return could mean the all-but-literal destruction of the world's museums, a position upon which the Greek academic world seems to be seriously divided. It's complicated by the fact that Lord Elgin's removal of the marbles may now be seen as unethical, but was in fact sanctioned by the then-government of Greece (see the third paragraph).
posted by m.polo at 7:50 AM on March 25, 2001


I read an article recently arguing that the Brits have both the legal and moral claims to the statues. An excerpt can be read here (do a search for "John Lewis" on the page to find the article). It sounds convincing to me and it at least serves as a balance to the current Greek government's slant on the story.
posted by mw at 8:05 AM on March 25, 2001


Nice link, mw: reminds us that the Marbles weren't actually taken from "Greece" the country, but rather the western outpost of the Ottoman Empire. (The unwinding of which is still bringing conflict to Europe and the Middle East, nearly a century after its dissolution.)

Even after Elgin's appropriation, there's been wide concern among the world's curators at the inability of the Greeks to maintain their own antiquities, through years of conflict and increased environmental pollution. After all, we'd not have objected if the Taliban had let the Buddhas be moved out of Afghanistan as an alternative to being dynamited, would we?
posted by holgate at 8:41 AM on March 25, 2001


Blair: "All your marbles are..."

Hey, put those bats down!
posted by kindall at 11:03 AM on March 25, 2001


Great posts so far.

I've visited the Marbles twice. I was awed by them for their beauty, and age. As Iam an American, the British Museum was partly a "tourist attraction" for me. It seems to me the removal of the marbles would be a blow to the value of London as a tourist destination somwhat? And as noted, if we begin evaluating the provenance of all the artifacts in the world's museums we might find our local outposts of culture gutted.

It sounds like the British Museum is in the right on this one. I'll admit that these kinds of cases need to be evaluated individually.

This reminds me in some ways of the case of the Kennewick Man's remains: with many competing strong claims.
posted by artlung at 11:34 AM on March 25, 2001


"Should museums today be returning treasures that have were obtained though such looting?" Sure, if it can be accurately documented. As mentioned above, it would have to be on a case-by-case basis.

". . . the precedent set by the return could mean the all-but-literal destruction of the world's museums." Maybe. Or, it could simply result in a re-distribution of the world's museums. As I understand it, museums often have agreements with each other to swap collections, and popular collections make tours of the world. After the dust settles, I can't see it making a huge difference except in point of origin.
posted by jennaratrix at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2001


Museums the world over have been wrestling with this problem for a long time now, and in almost every case the answer has been repatriation. The exceptions are all big tourist-trap-attraction museums. I mean, if sending the artifacts back is the right thing to do (and I grant that that's questionable in the case of the Elgin Marbles), who cares if it affects something's status as a tourist destination? Do the interests of commerce trump those of ethics? ([Checks watch] Oh, yeah, forgot what decade this is. Never mind.)
posted by rodii at 1:19 PM on March 25, 2001


Do the interests of commerce trump those of ethics?

I think I'm more concerned that the BM rents out the room with the Marbles after opening hours for corporate drinks receptions. (Just as fizz-and-canapes junkets are all too common in the glorious Divinity School of the Bodleian in Oxford.) Yes, it brings in the cash, but it's all a bit scuzzy.
posted by holgate at 1:28 PM on March 25, 2001


Okay, this is a good one. Before Blair became a Prime Minister (and while he was at it), he had promised that he would return the marbles back to where they belong (=my country).

Now, he can't return them... (can you say "surprise!")

Anyway, I believe that you can't contradict to someone's supporting the return of the marbles by claiming that the museum will simply fade out,should it return the marbles back.

I mean: you are denying to bring me back what belongs to my ancestors, by simply telling me that you will lose some tourists? Should I comment the ridiculousness of this thought, or not? (a rhetoric question)

After all, the marbles *were* stolen. Elgin didn't tak'em back to his home to protect them - he just wanted to make his house look more beautiful or something.
posted by kchristidis at 2:05 PM on March 25, 2001


On a sidenote: I recently heard that homes/estates that were plundered during WWII can seek to recover works taken from them during the war. (This is assuming they have adequate proof and can positively identify the work at a given museum.)
posted by Witold at 2:44 PM on March 25, 2001


Most countries in the world have now strict controls over "archaeologists" and "conservationists" of the likes of Elgin.

To argue that his activities where sanctioned by the legitimate goverment of Greece is stretching it a little, especially when considering how close it was to the moment of Greek independence from Ottoman rule (his activities were actually brought to an end by the war of indepence). Contemporary observers were well aware of how questionable his activities were and the travesty that was being committed.

As for the claims of the British they are can't trust those volatile Greeks to look after their own antiquities, I say the Empire is dead boys, lose the attitude okay?

Actually, it seems pretty clear that it's that old Imperialist ideaology which informs British attitudes and actions even to this day.
posted by lagado at 5:54 PM on March 25, 2001


ideology dammit!
posted by lagado at 5:56 PM on March 25, 2001


I say the Empire is dead boys, lose the attitude okay?

I assume you'll be supporting the Aboriginal land settlement claim then, lagado? Honestly, the 'imperialist' jibe is a classic symptom of a colonial inferiority complex.

Anyway: people have been stealing stuff from the Greeks ever since the Romans arrived. The Grand Tour combined two great 18th-century innovations -- tourism and capitalism -- as noblemen across Europe took a bit of antiquity home with them. I don't see the Louvre and the Met being asked to offload their classical relics, because it's easier for Greece -- a country that has been in steady decline for 2500 years, and is currently proving itself incapable of organising the Olympics despite starting the bloody thing -- to whinge about imperialism and bad old Blighty, despite the fact that the Hellenic peninsula has been part of several non-British foreign empires for most of the past two millennia, and needed to be motivated by a clubfooted sister-shagger into regaining its independence. Well, fuck that.

In fact, I say we blow the Marbles up for their pagan idolatry. The Greeks have been asking for it long enough. After all, they gave us Price Philip.
posted by holgate at 8:50 PM on March 25, 2001


"I assume you'll be supporting the Aboriginal land settlement claim then, lagado?"

Well, a great many people here do. I'm not sure how Lagado feels about this, but I'm not really sure I see the point of the question really.

"Honestly, the 'imperialist' jibe is a classic symptom of a colonial inferiority complex."

That’s the way it is? Really? OK then :)

Anyway, I would rather see these relics in their country of origin if at all possible, displayed by the people who's ancestors created/found them. Certainly museums swap and sell artifacts and antiquities, but it seems that these are fundamentally important to people of Greece, are part of their identity, and it's pretty clear that they want them back. Perhaps the British should just give up their balls for the greater good, and by doing so, would show they have some? Da dum.
posted by lucien at 9:56 PM on March 25, 2001


I'm just glad that people are arguing about art. Of course, it's mostly an argument about nationalism and tourist dollars and so on, but, no matter who wins this game of marbles, the winner will be the marbles. That's much better than brainless Taliban idiots arguing over who gets to launch the first rocket-propelled grenade.

I do hope, however, that this sort of argument doesn't become more common. By the sort of reasoning the Greek government offers, probably about half of the museums in the world would have to send many of their best pieces back to the birthplaces of the artists. Don't all the van Goghs really belong in the Netherlands? Shouldn't all the da Vincis and Michaelangelos be returned to Italy? How can we allow the separation of Monet and France? And Picasso? Maybe a museum on the Spanish-French border?

And I haven't mentioned private ownership yet. Does anyone have the right to own a piece of art that is important to the nation? By Greece's reasoning, shouldn't all governments start confiscating repatriating their national treasures to make sure they are protected forever?

And forget national issues; think of regional rights. Monet, for example, belongs, not to Paris, but to Giverny. Shouldn't local governments start reclaiming their heritage?

Bah. There are bigger troubles in the world. Leave the Elgin Marbles where they are.
posted by pracowity at 10:59 PM on March 25, 2001


Actually, I was "whinging" about the pain-in-the-arse paternalistic attitudes and assumptions that are often projected by the British on to every non-British people. It seems pretty clear who has the issues to deal with here.

For the record, I strongly support the Australian aboriginals land-rights movement and reconcilliation agenda.
posted by lagado at 12:01 AM on March 26, 2001


Bah. There are bigger troubles in the world. Leave the Elgin Marbles where they are.

If you had the same thought ("there are bigger troubles in the world") every time you were about to do something, you would eventually do nothing.

Just because there are bigger troubles in the world, it doesn't mean that we should just sit there and do nothing.

And if we should only occupy ourselves with the bigger troubles in the world, let's just turn MeFi into Hungersite or something.

Sorry, I can't see something logical in your thought (referring only to your last sentence of course).
posted by kchristidis at 12:03 AM on March 26, 2001


Dean_Paxton, are there border guards between England and Scotland?
posted by palnatoke at 3:32 AM on March 26, 2001


Okay so I was a bit grumpy in that last post. Sorry for generalizing.
posted by lagado at 4:40 AM on March 26, 2001


Let it go, Lagado, let it go. (I know you have, but still...)

the pain-in-the-arse paternalistic attitudes and assumptions that are often projected by the British on to every non-British people.

*Sigh* I get equally upset about the way that the British (read in this context: English) people are constantly portrayed as imperialist dogs who still regard themselves as having the right to dictate to other countries. Both stances are equally unfair.

I also think Holgate's point (reading through the heavy sarcasm in his post) about other great public museums was fair. Should the Louvre give back the Winged Victory of Samothrace? What about the Venus de Milo?
The Assyrian and Egyptian antiquities? And why does no one make a fuss about the caryatid from the Erectheion that is also in London?

My opinion is that we need to stake out terms of argument before any repatriations are made. Pracowity has a point - just to be really provocative here, please don't flame me - what if the Elgin marbles had been paid for by a major private collector? Would people be clamouring for their return? Isn't it the case that, where art becomes a private commodity where its primary value is commercial, it is effectively removed from the sphere of public discourse (as it is no longer on public view)and is no longer a locus of politicised debate - whereas if it is acquired by a public museum, where its value is primarily cultural and it remains on view for the public, it is subject to a different series of values?

Maybe we should be thinking about the purpose of cultural institutions. That might help to clarify the rights and wrongs of this particular case.
posted by Caffa at 6:52 AM on March 26, 2001


perhaps the BM [and others] should open up franchises in the respective countries that want their antiquities back...the loot goes home, and the BM can keep up their tradition of "protecting" the treasures.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:57 AM on March 26, 2001


Thanks, Caffa, for noting that I was in deep troll mode last night. You're right: it's an issue of the value of "collections" of antiquities, and whether the way that institutions have brought together pieces for comparison and research is rendered obsolete by the ability to travel and the development of local institutions.

We often hear of "great collections" being put under auction, normally with the rider that they ought to be purchased and preserved for the nation, rather than split up: the sum, the effort of collection, is greater than the parts. Elgin was undoubtedly more concerned with DIY antiquity: but should we regard someone like General Pitt Rivers as a global kleptomaniac, or a pioneer in anthropology and ethnology?

I know it's a very different issue, but zoos are happy to assist in the preservation and proliferation of rare species: you see the gorillas and the pandas (if you like, "unceremoniously hacked away from their natural habitats") but are hopefully moved to support the attempts to protect them in the wild. And while you can't start a captive breeding programme for Greek sculpture, you can certainly breed awareness in the minds of those little kids bussed into London on museum visits.

So, is there a role for grand institutional collections in a digital age? If you consider them as academic establishments -- the BM has an ac.uk address as well as a .org -- then surely yes.

are there border guards between England and Scotland?

Not yet ;)
posted by holgate at 10:53 AM on March 26, 2001


While there is always the thin edge of the wedge argument:

1. There is always a case for returning relics of cultural significance to their people's of origin. That goes for Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander relics in museums around the world (and perhaps even Kennewick Man in the US). Case by case is really the only way to go (no matter how painful such a process can at times be).

2. This is the Parthenon. It's still one of the most prized remaining examples of Greek architecture. I would be arguing the same if we were talking about the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids.

Other museums have come to recognize this. Perhaps these older and grander institutions are slower because of their longer histories as being an integral part of the process of nation-building and national self esteem. National chauvenism seems never far from the surface in this debate. Most of it seeems to be coming from the museum establishment.

Anyway, my understanding is that the British Museum is being petitioned to become involved in a new museum at the Acropolis and that the marbles would be exhibited as "on loan" from the BM.

*Sigh* I get equally upset about the way that the British (read in this context: English) people are constantly portrayed as imperialist dogs who still regard themselves as having the right to dictate to other countries. Both stances are equally unfair.

I think that these attitudes are still a long way from being dead and buried.
posted by lagado at 3:57 PM on March 26, 2001


I think the Brits would be up in arms if Big Ben or the Crown Jewels were being exhibited somewhere in, e.g., Russia as a centerpiece to a museum.

And don't go off about the London Bridge in Arizona either; a second-rate Thames bridge (everybody knows the Tower Bridge not the London one) is not the same thing as the symbol of a city, a country and a history.

Yes, I am Greek so I am biased.

I visited the British Museum recently. The Greek and Egyptian exhibits were by far the most impressive. These people are worried about a precedent; a precedent that might strip their museum bare. Greeks want one of the country's most prominent symbols returned. I don't think we are talking the same scale here.

No one --not a single soul-- has raised the same issue in Greece with other Greek and Hellenistic exhibits elsewhere in the world. No one is asking to get back Venus di Milo, the Nike of Samothrace or half the city of Ephesos (in Dresden if I am not mistaken) and all the minor temples that were lifted altogether (after they were chopped to pieces and crated over to their destination) to major and minor museums all over the world. It's not the same thing.

Oh, and as for the 2500 years in decline comment: does this give Americans the right to go and take apart the Pyramids and put them in Nevada now? I mean, yeah, they can take Egypt by force and finally get some tourists going out to the Western deserts, but do they have a right? And if they did, would the Egyptians be justified in asking for the things back? How would a New Yorker like it if some Greek tycoon bought the Statue of Liberty and put it on an island in the Aegean (possibly as a lighthouse)? I am sure the Japanese could use the Eiffel Tower as a cellphone antenna (the Big Ben is too damn short and ugly).

No, of course we cannot do these things now, we'd be on CNN the next day. But the fact that some dumbass English country hick did it 400 years ago, makes it alright... The Brits would all be better off if they stole some Greek cooks back then instead of marbles; maybe by now they would be looser when it comes to the BM...
posted by costas at 5:18 AM on March 29, 2001


holgate wrote:
"...I don't see the Louvre and the Met being asked to offload their classical relics, because it's easier for Greece -- a country that has been in steady decline for 2500 years, and is currently proving itself incapable of organising the Olympics despite starting the bloody thing -- to whinge about imperialism and bad old Blighty, despite the fact that the Hellenic peninsula has been part of several non-British foreign empires for most of the past two millennia, and needed to be motivated by a clubfooted sister-shagger into regaining its independence. Well, fuck that."
No it's not items that Greece is asking for, it's half the bloody Parthenon which was defaced by a half-drunk imperial robber for his own private amusement, and which resulted in the defacement of a great historical monument. It is the integrity of the whole damn archeological site that's at stake and excuse me if I don't give a rat's ass about how badly tourism will be hurt in Britain.
It also seems that the damage inflicted on the Parthenon by Lord Elgin rivals in extent the damage inflicted on the monument by the vast array of invaders that have plagued this particular corner of the world combined.
As for the "club-footed sister shagger", I really do not know who you are referring to. If you believe that the Greek war of independence was something inspired by a Briton (?) you might want to check a history book.
To this attitude towards us "lesser mortals" not privileged to be born Anglo-Saxon I say: Well, fuck that indeed.
posted by talos at 6:05 AM on March 29, 2001


Handbags at thirty paces!

Costas, I'm not English (or British, or whatever the hell you want to call it, though I'm sure that being the native of a former colony, some would tar me with that brush) but I think that your bashing's just tired. Lift the game, please.

Lagado: The attitudes may be far from dead and buried, but remember that you have to take fuckheads on an individual-by-individual basis. The line between national pride and obnoxiousness is a thin one, and many people spill over. Yes, I still get the "you're a convict, boyo" attitude from people, but then, they get the "and that makes your dick bigger how?" attitude from me. Individual interactions. Speaking of which, I do agree with you on the fact that cases like these will require individual consideration: there's going to be no blanket ruling of a "give the toys back to the kids that own 'em" nature in this area. Each example of replacement - if warranted - must be examined on its own merits; including ownership etc - in the same way that the Maori and Australian Aboriginal remains returns were handled a couple of years ago. As Caffa suggested, ownership and sponsorship are important concerns, especially given that everything has a price, and could conceivably be owned by a corporation, or a rich individual. Do private collectors get this kind of heat?

To be perfectly frank, I don't think that the number of tourist bucks/pounds would be lost in such a move is a consideration here. And as far as the London Bridge goes? I'm pretty sure they bought it. I guess they're welcome to it. Then again, given the efficiency of the Millennium Bridge, London might want it back sometime soon.
posted by captainfez at 7:32 AM on March 30, 2001


Yes captainfez, totally agree.

Somehow I doubt that something as controversial as the Elgin Marbles would have stayed in private hands for long. I'm sure that they would have been donated sooner or later to a public institution as a way of taking the heat off them. But that's just a theory, are there some good counter examples floating about?

Costas and talos, holgate was just baiting and admitted as much in his last post.
posted by lagado at 6:16 PM on March 30, 2001


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