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Would returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece really mean whitewashing Europe’s past

According to this piece, returning the Parthenon Sculptures would mean the re-writing of European History. Surely though, another way of seeing the process is that it is merely adding a new chapter to their existing history – a change in decision due to evolving philosophies in an ever changing world?

The Guardian [1]

History in the making
Returning the Elgin marbles to Greece would mean whitewashing Europe’s past
Salvatore Settis
Monday January 19, 2004
The Guardian

It took a consummate actress like Melina Mercouri to realise that archaeology has a part to play in politics. As Greece’s minister of culture in the 1980s, she launched a vibrato appeal to the British Museum for the return of the Parthenon, or “Elgin”, marbles. Similar requests had been put forward since the dawn of Greek independence in 1835, but the issue gained real resonance after Mercouri’s appeal.

Her appeal was greeted as a noble way of recalling Europe’s cultural roots, as the affirmation of a sacred principle, and as an act of homage to Greece as the cradle of democracy at a time when the country had only just recovered its own democratic principles. The significance of the appeal was reinforced by the announcement that Greece would undertake a radical “restoration” of the Acropolis and build a museum to house all the Parthenon sculptures, which would remain painfully empty until the hoped-for “return” of the sculptures. Since then, this issue periodically makes its appearance in newspapers, resulting in opposing factions campaigning for one or other position.

The details are well known. Lord Elgin, English ambassador to Istanbul from 1798 to 1803, took the marbles from a Parthenon almost destroyed by Venetian cannon. This was an act of spoliation, but not “theft”. Elgin had asked the Ottoman court for permission to conduct extensive investigations on the Acropolis, which was granted in a series of so-called firmans, dispatches from the Sublime Porte to the authorities in Athens.

Was the removal of the marbles therefore a “legal” act, as the British government insists? Or did the Ottoman officials in Athens interpret the firmans too broadly, possibly helped by a generous bribe? No one disputes that Elgin, overcome by debts, was obliged to sell them for only £35,000. The British Museum is therefore not directly responsible for the spoliations, but the legitimacy of its ownership is dependant on the judgment of Elgin’s conduct.

However, many have relied on another argument to reject restitution. In Athens, it is argued, no one had taken care of them for centuries. Anyone could have removed part of those marbles. Indeed, sculptures from the Parthenon are found all over the world.

It was only after reaching London that the marbles entered European cultural circles. Even if they were returned, they would always carry with them a meaning acquired in London. Advocates for “restitution” counter that the marbles were damaged during the removal and suffered further damage when they were “restored” in 1938. They say that Greece today is quite different from what it was in Elgin’s time, and that it could provide the best available standards of conservation.

Let us try to address the problem from two often neglected perspectives. First, what is the “real” Acropolis? The Parthenon only survived thanks to successive changes of use: it was a church, then a mosque during the Turkish occupation, and then was “returned” to a purely Greek identity through a process by which anything that was not classically Greek, like the minaret, was destroyed. The Acropolis is therefore the result of an operation that eliminated its Christian and Ottoman past. In order to reconstruct what is only one of the various possible forms of the Acropolis, all other forms are negated; this process would be crowned and legitimised by the return of the marbles. It would sanction the idea that of all the history that has flowed through the Acropolis (in fact, the history of Europe), only one moment matters and all others must be suppressed.

Second, tens of thousands of Greek sculptures, painted vases, bronzes and archaeological finds fill the world’s museums. Why is this controversy limited to the return of the marbles? This tendency to select totem-like works, which in themselves synthesise an entire culture, unfortunately implies a devaluation not only of all other works but of the contextual nexus that links such works to one another. Such a process of reductio ad unum is directly opposed to the most advanced ideas of cultural conservation, and unintentionally risks legitimising the divorce of a few “high” works from all others.

The Munich declaration, signed last month by 30 museums, points to a possible solution that could be translated into an international agreement. On the one hand, there should be a crackdown on illegal trafficking of archaeological and artistic objects and, on the other, nothing should be returned if it was exported before such laws were implemented. This implies that history, with all its stratifications, is preferable to the “return to origin” idea of repatriation at all costs.

· Salvatore Settis is professor of classical archaeology at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, and a former director of the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art, Los Angeles.

A longer version of this article was published in Italian in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore