January 8, 2009

Lord Elgin’s great great great grandson on the Marbles

Posted at 8:51 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

One of Lord Elgin’s descendants has written this short piece about the Marbles. He seems to stick to the post-rationalised agenda of his ancestor, that the sculptures were only removed for their own preservation, before reverting to the often repeated argument that return can’t happen because it would set a precedent.

Setting aside whether or not a precedent would be set, I continue to find it disturbing that the fact that one might have to do the right thing again in the future is used as a feeble justification for not doing the right thing today – if something needs to be done, it needs to be done – if you keep hanging onto this reasoning, everything else will end up going back first, before the precedent argument is abandoned to be replaced by some other equally spurious one.

From:
Sky News

MPs Pushing Elgin’s Marbles Back To Greece
Alastair Bruce
January 8, 2009 11:29 PM

Two MPs championing the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece this year, to mark the opening of a new museum at the ancient Acropolis in Athens, have sent letters out this week to all their fellow legislators recruiting Parliamentary support.

My interest in this is because the marbles were brought back to Britain from Athens by my Great Great Great Grandfather, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, at the start of the 19th century. He was passionate about antiquities and wanted to preserve them from the destruction they faced, at a time when war and local indifference was grinding away at the edifice.

But the process broke him and he was forced to sell them to the Government in 1816. They were put into the British Museum and have been there ever since – owned by us all, in trust for the world.

Eddie O’Hara (MP for Knowsley South) and Andrew George (MP for St Ives), who are part of Marbles Reunited, have put down an Early Day Motion, which is a sort of mood barometer on Parliament, to see if there is a will to do this.

If Britain repatriates the Elgin Marbles, it will not be long before every country in the world puts in claims for items displayed in the British Museum to be returned. Museums in London, New York and elsewhere might face a mass repatriation from the precedent.

My family have little influence in this debate but we would be sad if the Elgin Marbles left. It is interesting that almost the first pronounced decision of Tony Blair’s government in 1997 was that the Elgin Marbles would not be going back to Greece.

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7 Comments »

  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    02.03.09 at 6:14 pm

    RESPONSE TO THE GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDSON OF LORD ELGIN

    Two riders at the end of the west frieze Parthenon Marbles, Greece, now in the British Museum, London.

    Alastair Bruce may have a filial duty in respect of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and no one can criticise him for that. (http://sharonwaxman) After all, we are not responsible for the deeds or misdeeds of our ancestors. What he should really not expect from the rest of us is to buy the argument that his Great Great Great Grandfather, Lord Elgin, “wanted to preserve them from the destruction they faced, at a time when war and local indifference was grinding away at the edifice.” This is a baseless argument which has been used by all those who have taken illegally or in a questionable manner, the cultural objects of others. It is an extremely weak argument which does not gain credibility by being repeated often. Who preserved these objects before his Great Great Great Grandfather ever set foot in Athens?
    Nowadays, nobody except officials of the British Museum and their friends, believe that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles that were put into that museum “are owned by us all, in trust for the world”. Tell this to the Greeks! The rest of the world, led by the Greeks, has not accepted the British Museum propaganda that the actions of Lord Elgin “spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution”. (From a notice affixed to a wall in the British Museum, entitled ATHENS AND LONDON). The vandalism involved in physically removing these objects from their original location is conveniently forgotten. The United Nations and UNESCO have in countless resolutions urged that cultural objects such as the Parthenon Marbles be returned to their countries of origin.
    Equally groundless is the argument that “If Britain repatriates the Elgin Marbles, it will not be long before every country in the world puts in claims for items displayed in the British Museum to be returned. Museums in London, New York and else where might face a mass repatriation from the precedent.”
    Are the big museums made up only of stolen/looted artefacts or objects of doubtful acquisition? Anytime some country or some person asks for the return of an unjustifiably taken object, he or she is told that if it were returned all the others will claim their looted property. Is this a valid argument? Can one legally or morally advance the argument that because one has wrongfully taken objects from many other persons, nobody should have their property back because the illegal holder would have nothing else in his possession?
    It is also remarkable that once a claim is made with respect to a specific object, the holders broaden the argument to cover all objects. If you ask for the return of the Benin Bronzes, you are told that cannot be done because there would then be a claim for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. If you ask for the return of a Nazi-looted object hanging in the British Museum, you are told that cannot be done because then there will follow a claim for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Thus the different histories of the acquisition of the various contested objects in the British Museum are mixed. Can one injustice be used to defend another injustice?
    Are the makers of such arguments not worried at all by the moral implications of their reasoning? I recommend to those with such views a quotation from some members of the House of Lords:
    “The public interest must surely be in upholding the rule of law, rather than promoting an international free-for-all through the unrestricted circulation of tainted works of art. Do we really wish to educate our children to have no respect for history, legality and ethical values by providing museums with the opportunity freely to exhibit stolen property? ”
    Extract from a letter by several members of the British House of Lords
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk

    The Greeks have built a New Acropolis Museum which is intended to house, inter alia, the Parthenon Marbles. The Greeks and indeed the whole world, including the majority of British citizens, hope that the British Museum and the British Government will finally do what is morally and legally correct: return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens!

    New Acropolis Museum, Athens.

    Kwame Opoku, 23 January .2009.

  2. Lord Best said,

    02.09.09 at 5:19 am

    Given that the Acropolis was a military fort at the time and was later used as an ammunution storage dump in the Greek War of Independence it is quite likely further damage would have occured to the marbles had they not been removed.
    Additionally, although the Firman legitimising Elgins claims is dubious, the Ottoman authorities gave approval for the Marbles to be shipped form Pireaus, which can be taken as tacit approval of the removals. At the time Greece had been an Ottoman posession for three hundred and thirty one years, the legal legitimacy of Ottoman approval, tacit or otherwise can not be denied.
    The fact that the Marbles can not be restored to the Parthenon proper (through Elgins vandalism, yes) means the integrity of both sculptures and structure will not be enhanced by their return to Athens. The argument that the experience for a visitor will be enhanced by being able to look out of a window at the Parthenon is absurd, one could easily hang a photographic poster of the structure within the British Museum for the same effect.
    The simple fact is that while Elgins claims are somewhat dubious, it is overstating the argument by several orders of magnitude to say that the Elgin Marbles MUST be returned to Athens and that the British Museum is not justified in keeping them.
    When pointing out that the British Museum has repatriated certain items, one should also bear in mind that the National Archaeological Museum of Athens holds one of the worlds finest collections of Egyptian antiquities, and has thus far not offerredto return them. One can not have ones cake and eat it, as the saying goes.

  3. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    03.07.09 at 9:43 pm

    “When pointing out that the British Museum has repatriated certain items, one should also bear in mind that the National Archaeological Museum of Athens holds one of the worlds finest collections of Egyptian antiquities, and has thus far not offered to return them. One can not have ones cake and eat it, as the saying goes”.-Lord Best.

    With all due respect to Lord Best, this is really no argument at all and does not make for clear thinking. If the Greeks are holding wrongfully certain objects, and Lord Best has not adduced any evidence or argument that this is so nor explained the circumstances of their acquisition, then this should be considered separately. Specific Greek claims, with well documented information and well-known background should not be mixed up with some vague allusions about Greek possession of other artefacts which are not even claimed to be British. This cannot be regarded as counterclaim and would be dismissed outright by every English court.
    Kwame Opoku.

  4. Nick said,

    06.22.09 at 11:59 am

    The arguments about possible “depletion of the British museum” in the future is false and forms no legal basis either.
    Whatever Elgin may have done in 1800, is neither here nor there.
    Let me be his advocate:

    Who knows after so many years ?
    And why jump the gun and readily call him a vandal ?

    But my dear British friends, you know and everyone else also knows that the marbles belong to Greece. Greece, the nation that is and the Greek civilization – not its present prime minister or the one before !
    The decision to keep the marbles in Britain was political and this is what has sparked off the vendetta.

    Nowadays it is the museum itself (the British miuseum) who play the part of the defense.
    That’s ugly and barbaric.
    The British museum should care for the marbles and maintain them on display for the visitors, for as long as they reside in its premises. They should also obey the law as it stands, as caretakers, meaning by that, that they should not of course have the option to negotiate things with Greece.
    But when they act and play the role of political defense (following some government instructions which they stupidly accepted), it is barbaric.

  5. heliosmou said,

    10.01.09 at 4:08 pm

    First of all, the great great great great grandson of Elgin has his facts wrong.

    Greece was not in a war when Elgin decided to remove the Marbles.
    The war didn’t happen until 1821. Elgin removed the Marbles in 1801.

    As for the indifference toward the Marbles, that had nothing to do with Greek sentiment, rather the indifference lay at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

    Furthermore he justifies his decision that the Marbles should remain in the BM by evoking panic. Next thing you know, there will be no museums left, if everybody wants what belongs to them!

    Aye, great great great great grandson.
    But one thing at a time.

    And your great great great great grandfather—his motives if I recall correctly, lacked honor. He wanted the Marbles so he could decorate his home.—
    Hardly an honorable move on his part.

    Tony Blair?
    Who is Tony Blair?

  6. heliosmou said,

    10.01.09 at 4:44 pm

    “Given that the Acropolis was a military fort at the time and was later used as an ammunution storage dump in the Greek War of Independence it is quite likely further damage would have occured to the marbles had they not been removed.” Mr. Best

    This comment is mere speculation.

    Need we remind you, Mr. Best, that the Greeks had no problem whatsoever caring for what they produced—until grand-dad came along and picked from the rubble, and hacked pieces from the Temple.

    Means nothing insofar as the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
    A soggy argument, at best. Your point is moot.

    If the Greeks are fighting for anything today, it is to expose the brutal and dishonorable actions of your grandfather, and alert the world that all should be skeptical when such statements are made— the speculation kind of statements—as a justification for keeping what does not belong to them.

    And now let’s take a look at the Ottoman Empire.

    What business does an oppressive regime have in the determination of what is best for those they oppress? As you can see, this argument is absurd.

    Only better than the example of absurdity you quote above…

    Not only was Greece occupied by the Ottoman Empire, it was enslaved by it as well. Now, being a Philhellene, do you not think it appropriate that the British should have moved to help Greece gain independence, instead of bargaining with the oppressors, and taking that which— when Greece was not at liberty to act on her own best interests, at a time when the Ottomans were trying to erase Greece?

    Ah. But one did help.
    George Gordon LORD BYRON

    “The fact that the Marbles can not be restored to the Parthenon proper (through Elgins vandalism, yes) means the integrity of both sculptures and structure will not be enhanced by their return to Athens. “ Mr. Best

    Really?

    Ah, but I see you have conceded.
    Elginism. That’s the name of grand-dad’s actions.
    That’s your legacy.
    Sadly.

    You needn’t worry about the Egyptians and Greeks.
    They’ll work out something amicably.
    It’s the British who insist they are justified in their actions.
    These arguments of yours, Mr. Best,—
    all I can say in response to them is—

    British Mustard!

  7. Hellenius said,

    12.14.09 at 10:30 am

    For a scandinavian, it is rather hard to understand why BM should have Elgin Marbles. If some people claim to have difficulties understanding why modern greece should get them back, I can’t imagine how they can reason BM holding them.
    There is no getting away from the fact that Greek made ‘em, and brits stole ‘em. Turks maybe gave a silent permission for Elgin, but I wouldn’t blame them. Elgins acts were opportunistic (tried to make huge profits), unmoralistic and unlawful, and can’t be accepted by anyone with a bit of reason. I hope that Finlands embassy in London will confiscate Big Ben, Tower bridge and house of parliament, ship them back here and put on display – they belong to us.

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