August 16, 2004

The Elgin Marbles belong in Greece

Posted at 10:47 pm in Elgin Marbles

Quite a lengthy article, looking at some of the issues surrounding the case in detail.

San Diego Union-Tribune

All the marbles
With the historic return of the Olympic Games to their birthplace, Greece hoped to showcase elaborate sculptures from the Parthenon. Britain won’t return them, igniting a spat for
By Mark Zeigler
August 10, 2004

ATHENS, Greece – In the residential neighborhood below the Parthenon is a nondescript building that houses the Center for Studies of the Acropolis. Inside is a long hallway lined with plaster copies and a few originals of the famous marble sculptures that once adorned the top of the Parthenon.

The building was closed to the public after a 1999 earthquake made the walls unstable. It was reopened last week.

And with it reopened one of the deepest scars in the Greek psyche.

Greeks can’t look at the plaster copies without noticing most of them have a lead stamp driven into their upper right corners with a royal seal from the British Museum. It’s a painful reminder that the British made the copies of the marbles two decades ago and gave them to the Greeks – made them from the originals that are still displayed in London.

“Greeks always love to remember their past,” says Themistokles Vakoulis, an archeologist at the Center for Studies of the Acropolis. “And for that past, the Parthenon is the crowning symbol. We have this saying in Greek, that something is the Parthenon of something. That Mercedes, for example, is the Parthenon of cars.

“Most Greeks can’t tell you the difference between Doric and Ionic columns. They just know that the Parthenon is the emblem of Athenian democracy, of a time when Athens was the most important city in the world. That’s why the marbles are so important. They reflect a light on our past.”

About 40 percent of the marbles, elaborate depictions of scenes from Greek antiquity, were lost through the years. Of the remaining marbles, half belong to Greece.

It is the other half – the better-preserved set – that has become the art world’s greatest controversy. The British have them. The Greeks want them back.

After years of coaxing, pleading, asking nicely, even demanding that the British return the marbles, the Greeks figured they finally had the ultimate weapon of coercion: the Olympic Games.

They open here Friday night, and the plan was that the Greeks would build a $100 million Acropolis museum to house the full set of marbles and that, in the Olympic spirit of global harmony, the British would magnanimously pack them into crates and ship them back.

“The Olympics were a great advantage for us,” Vakoulis says.

But this is also Greece, and the museum fell victim to the construction delays that plagued Athens in the seven years since it was awarded the Games. No sooner had workers broken ground than they found remains of a Christian settlement from the second century and the project came to abrupt halt – an archaeological museum delayed by an archaeological dig. Today it is nothing more than a giant hole in the dirt with a revised completion date of 2006.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The British aren’t budging.

In one particularly defiant moment, British Museum director Neil MacGregor said, “To rip the Elgin marbles from the walls of the British Museum is worse than to consider than blowing up the Parthenon itself.”

The whole mess goes back nearly 2,500 years, to Greece’s golden age under Pericles, to the time of Socrates and Plato.

Bolstered by military victories over the Persians, Pericles commissioned the construction of a mighty temple dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and art and the city’s namesake. It took 15 years and thousands of laborers to build the structure, and the key feature was the continuous band of sculpture around the top that was designed by Phidias and painstakingly chiseled from white Pentelic marble.

Now fast-forward to the early 1800s, to Scotland, to a man named Thomas Bruce.

He was the seventh Earl of Elgin, and he was Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul – and the Ottoman Empire. At the time, Greece was under Ottoman control, and Lord Elgin, as Bruce was known, dispatched a team of European architects and draftsmen to Athens to examine the treasures of Greek antiquity.

The idea, Elgin wrote in letters, was to make drawings and casts of Greek art so he could put replicas in the sprawling estate he was having built in Scotland for his new wife.

Elgin claimed he obtained a “firman,” or official decree, from the Ottoman government for his architectural team to work on the Acropolis while he remained in Constantinople (he would visit Athens only once).

But somewhere along the way, what started as an assignment to copy Greek art dissolved into a plundering mission. Elgin’s men pried the marble sculptures off the Parthenon and packed them into 200-odd crates for shipping to London. The total haul: 56 slabs of friezes, or about 250 feet.

Elgin returned to England in 1806 to learn that his wife had left him for another man and his personal finances were in shambles. Broke, he sold the marbles to the government in 1816 for 35,000 pounds – an estimated $2 million in today’s money – along with an agreement that they would be named after him.

For many years, they have been among the most prized pieces in the British Museum – the Elgin marbles to the Brits, the Parthenon marbles to the Greeks. Irking Greeks even more is they are housed in the Duveen Gallery, named after the man responsible for cleaning the marbles in the 1930s who instead scraped off much of the detail in a move the British Museum now admits was ill-advised.

Four years ago, the British Museum had a gala dinner to celebrate a $184 million face-lift and invited Greece’s ambassador to attend. He refused. The gala was being held in the Duveen Gallery.

And so it has gone, before and since. It is the reason many Greeks will feel a certain emptiness when the Olympics bring into focus their glorious past. It is also the reason British athletes might get booed.

The Greeks, the United Nations, a growing number of British politicians and an overwhelming majority of British citizens (some polls run as high as 90 percent) think the marbles should be returned.

However, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British Museum do not. Blair’s official stance is that he defers to the British Museum, and the British Museum’s official stance is that the marbles are staying.

MacGregor, the museum director, argues that Elgin had legal authority from the Ottomans to take the marbles; that instead of hoarding them, as his early letters indicate, he was preserving the marbles “for posterity” at a time when classical art was being looted; that since the 1687 explosion at the Parthenon (when the Turks used it as a gunpowder store), the marbles can never be re-attached to the building; that because of its range of collections “the worldwide significance of the sculptures can be fully grasped” only at British Museum, which has 4.6 million visitors per year and doesn’t charge admission.

One other argument is perhaps the most salient: precedent.

If the British Museum returns the marbles to Greece, what happens to the thousands of foreign pieces scattered throughout the world’s great museums? What happens to Egypt’s Rosetta stone, which also is in the British Museum? Or Nigeria’s Benin bronzes at Paris’ Louvre Museum, or Ethiopia’s majestic obelisk in Rome, or Turkey’s Pergamon Altar in Berlin?

“A very dangerous precedent,” MacGregor says.

The Greeks suggested a long-term “loan” from the British Museum. They offered to make the New Acropolis Museum, built and maintained at Greek expense, an official annex of the British Museum. They proposed sending England a permanent, rotating collection of significant works from Greek antiquity.

There’s also a 1982 United Nations resolution, the 52-11 vote by UNESCO in 1997, the appeals of Sean Connery and a long list of British celebrities, the passionate pleas from government ministers about how the marbles “are the symbol and the blood of the Greek people,” the petition that Greeks are asking foreign visitors to sign during the Olympics.

There’s the inscription carved in the Acropolis rock by poet Lord Byron during a visit in the 1800s: “What the Goths spared, the Scots have destroyed.”

The British Museum won’t budge.

Meanwhile, work continues on the New Acropolis Museum. The top floor will have glass walls with sweeping views toward the Parthenon and the Acropolis. It was designed specially to house the marbles – to house all of them.

The museum’s curators will have a tough choice: Fill it with the British replicas from the 1980s and their lead stamps in the upper right corner. Or leave the entire floor empty in hopes of guilting the marbles home.

“I would love to have the marbles back,” Vakoulis says, walking through the hall filled with British replicas. “But knowing in the back of my mind the realities, I am afraid nothing will happen. They were taken during the Ottoman Empire. There was no Greek government. There’s not much else we can do.

“But I will say this. We Greeks are always optimistic.”

For hope, they look no farther than the Parthenon. One of the most famous scenes meticulously carved in the great marble frieze was the mythological battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths. The Centaurs were half-men, half-horse beasts who lived in northern Greece and were embroiled in a land dispute with the neighboring Lapiths.

As a means of reconciliation, legend has it, the king of the Lapiths invited the Centaurs to his wedding – only for the notoriously rowdy Centaurs to get drunk and steal the Lapith women, including the king’s bride. A battle ensued, and the Lapiths prevailed.

The Lapiths got their women back.

The Greeks retained a few Centaur and Lapith heads from the Parthenon marbles and will display them during the Olympics in a makeshift exhibition adjacent to the site of the New Acropolis Museum. To see the rest of the scene, you’ll have to go to the British Museum.

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