John Boardman has written a very negative piece for the Wall Street Journal about the Parthenon Marbles. He starts off by giving a historical account which is relatively accurate.
However, once he starts discussing the sculptures this all changes. Boardman claims that “The oriental bargaining that went on and the interpretation of licenses to remove sculpture from the Acropolis are the stuff of modern arguments about ‘legality’ that are quite foreign to the manners of the early 1800s.” which makes one wonder, if this is the case, why so many questions were raised in parliament about Lord Elgin’s conduct at the time of the acquisition of the sculptures by the British government.
Like many accounts he dwells on how Elgin suffered great financial loss in acquiring the marbles – I have never understood how the fact that the seventh Earl of Elgin was financially incompetent should alter the moral or legal aspects of the case.
Then he drops back to the old argument much loved by the British Museum of how so many more people see the sculptures in the museum – as if there has been some sort of mutual agreement between countries that all cultural heritage should be relocated to wherever the most people are, ignoring any sort of a connection they might have had with their original context.
Perhaps the main issue though, is that most of his arguments are post-rationalisations of what happened. Someone decided to do something & then many years later people realised that what the person had done had unknowingly to them created all sorts of other benefits – At the time events occur no one can anticipate what other things might happen in the future, so any post-rationalised ideas should at best be classified as fortunate co-incidences, rather than being implied as part of the original intention.
It is worth bearing in mind that when the British Museum held a symposium in 2000 about the cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures under Lord Duveen, John Boardman was the only one amongst the various delegates there who specifically stated that he thought this contentious cleaning had been a good thing & that the sculptures had been improved by it.
Wall Street Journal
What Were the Elgin Marbles?
And should they really go back to Greece?
BY JOHN BOARDMAN
Sunday, April 23, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
At a time when issues of “national heritage” seem to arouse passion, the Elgin Marbles (pronounced with a hard “g”) are regularly invoked. For many the matter seems simple: They were stolen from Greece by an English lord and, since they are the symbol of all that ancient Greece–as progenitor of modern civilization and democracy–stands for, they must go back. It might not hurt to consider just what they are.
In the middle of the fifth century B.C., Athens, which we regard as the home of democracy, was more effectively an imperial state, which had taken advantage of success against the Persian invasion to generate an “empire” in Greece. This had come to exclude only those too powerful to be conquered, and Athens was probably the most hated state in Greece. It was also rich, from Persian spoils and “tribute” from its empire. Athens’ leaders, notably Pericles, wished to demonstrate their success and claim a role for Athens as champion of the Greeks, through the construction of a great temple–the Parthenon.
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