May 23, 2004
This article looks at the reasons why the Marbles Reunited campaign feels that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens.
May 23, 2004. 01:00 AM
New strategy to `reunite’ Elgin marbles
Greece requests a loan for Olympics British Museum thinks it’s a ruse
ATHENS—The scaffolding and cranes around the Parthenon these days give the ancient monument what the Greeks of the time would have surely described as a tragic allure.
Built in honour of the goddess Athene, protector of Athens, the temple was considered one of the finest of the ancient world.
But time has its way with even the grandest of efforts, and no amount of work can restore a beauty that today is more suggested than real.
And yet, no matter how faded or broken, the marble sculptures that made the 2,500-year-old temple a work of artistic awe remain at the heart of a bitter battle for possession.
For almost 200 years, Britain and Greece have disputed ownership of the sculptures hacked off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to what was then the Ottoman Empire.
Sold by Elgin to the British Museum, the marbles of ancient Greek gods and warriors make up at least half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures, most of the rest of which remain in Greece.
The latest Greek campaign to regain them is pegged to the return of the Olympic Games to the country of their birth in August, when the government hoped it could unveil the “reunited” marbles to the world.
But the British Museum shows no sign of parting with its half.
And it sees Greece’s request of a loan during the Games as little more than a ruse.
Marbles Reunited, a London-based group supporting the sculptures’ return, believes much will depend on how smoothly Greece runs the Games.
“Everybody is holding their breath to see whether the Greeks run a good Olympic Games or make a cock-up of them,” says group spokesperson Chris Price, former chair of the House of Commons committee on the arts.
“I think it will make a great difference. The prevailing mood among a nasty section of British public opinion is that Greeks couldn’t run a shop of sweets and don’t know how to look after things.
“The myth here is that Elgin saved the marbles, when in fact he did great damage to them by tearing them off the building.”
British Museum officials have long argued that taking restitution arguments seriously would empty most of the world’s great museums.
Another example of a high-profile restitution demand is the Rosetta Stone, which revealed the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Taken as war loot and given to the British Museum by King George III, the Egyptian government wants it back.
Museum director Neil MacGregor argues that calls to “reunite” the Parthenon sculptures are misleading because more than half of them no longer exist.
It therefore becomes a question of where best to display those that remain, he says.
The British Museum, with its free admission, 5 million visitors a year and collection that puts the Parthenon sculptors in the context of art’s evolution, wins hands down, he argues.
The Greeks don’t even display what they have, he adds. They’ve kept most of their Parthenon sculptures in storage for more than a decade.
Greek officials say they’ve been restoring the stored sculptures and preparing them for a new museum being built at the foot of the Acropolis, big enough to house the reunited marbles.
Nowhere can the marbles be better understood, they argue, than at the site where they were meant to be.
Beyond the academic arguments, many Greeks see restitution as a simple matter of regaining a piece of their cultural heritage.
To them, Lord Elgin was little more than a grave robber.
“They didn’t have anything of their own that was impressive enough to show off, so they took what was ours,” says Niki Nasiopoulou, 50, who works at a medical clinic in central Athens.
Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed British ambassador to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, in 1799.
By then, Greece had been under Ottoman occupation for some 350 years. But Elgin knew that revolution was in the air.
The Parthenon he saw was a ruin.
Transformed into a Byzantine church in AD 600, a Catholic church later and finally a mosque, it was being used as a warehouse for gunpowder when a Venetian cannon attack in 1687 caused an explosion that blasted the roof sky high.
Elgin initially intended to have architectural sketches and plaster casts made of the Parthenon’s statues, partly to adorn his country house in England.
His request for a kind of work permit was granted by the Sultan, who appreciated British military assistance in fighting off Napoleon’s threat to his empire.
In part, the Sultan’s permission read: “That the artists meet no opposition in walking, viewing, contemplating the pictures and buildings they may wish to design or copy; or in fixing scaffolding around the ancient temple; or in modelling with chalk or gypsum the said ornaments and visible figures; or in excavating, when they find it necessary, in search of inscriptions among the rubbish. Nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures.”
If the removal of statues and sculptures in low relief from the Parthenon itself had been intended by the Sultan’s permit, Elgin would not have had to pay large bribes to local officials to get the job done, Greek officials argue.
Elgin’s workers used chisels and marble saws to hack and cut statutes and sculptures that formed integral parts of the temple’s structure and beauty.
Parts of the temple were dismantled while others were shattered beyond repair — all to satisfy Elgin’s appetite for the sculptures, says Elena Korka, an archaeologist with Greece’s culture ministry.
“After Elgin’s intervention, you could speak of a temple in ruins. Until then, it was a monument without a roof.”
By the time he shipped the marbles to London, Elgin was deeply in debt. He sold them to the British Museum, set up by an act of parliament and operating at arm’s length from the government, in 1816.
Before achieving full independence in 1833, Greece’s revolutionary leaders had already passed laws preventing the removal of antiquities from the country and had made a request for the return of the marbles.
The sculptures are of three kinds: statues from the pediment, the triangular space forming the gable of the roof at the front and back of the temple; the metopes, a strip of carved slabs decorating the outside of the temple; and the frieze, a band of carved slabs running above the temple’s interior rows of columns.
Today, the British Museum has 56 of the 97 surviving slabs of the Parthenon frieze, 15 of the 64 metopes, and 19 of the 28 remaining figures of the pediment.
Whatever Elgin’s motives for removing the marbles, officials at the British Museum describe him as a saviour of antiquities.
“Elgin’s actions have always been controversial,” reads one of the museum panels in the exhibit, “but his removal of the sculptures has spared them further damage from vandalism, weathering and the modern threat of atmospheric pollution.”
Still, most scholars criticize the British Museum for a damaging “cleaning” of its sculptures in the 1930s, in which steel brushes and acid were used to scrape off their protective patina and give them an unnatural white hue.
The restitution debate especially heated up in the 1980s, when the late actress Melina Mercouri became Greece’s culture minister.
“You must understand what the Parthenon marbles mean to us,” she once told an audience at Oxford University.
“They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.”
But when she asked to visit the exhibit at the British Museum, the museum director at the time, Sir David Wilson, compared it to allowing burglars to “case the joint” in advance.
When Mercouri accused the museum of practising British colonial imperialism, Wilson responded that calls for restitution amounted to “cultural fascism — like burning books. That’s what Hitler did.”
The debate has recently become less emotional.
The Greek government has set aside its claim of ownership and is instead asking for a loan — a position supported by 77 per cent of the British people, according to a recent poll.
Supporters believe it’s only a matter of time before the British Museum bows to the pressure.
But for now, it remains the kind of intractable dispute the ancient Greeks would have looked to Athene to solve.
- Greece repeats demands for return of Elgin Marbles : September 1, 2004
- Huge support for Marbles return shown in new poll : January 12, 2004
- Liapis askes for return of artefacts : September 25, 2007
- British government refuses to intervene in Elgin Marbles case : August 16, 2004
- Marbles Reunited campaign launch : January 15, 2004
- Marbles Reunited – a new exhibition about the Parthenon Marbles : January 2, 2003
- New campaign to Reunite the Parthenon Marbles : January 15, 2004
- Will the New Acropolis Museum win back the Elgin Marbles? : March 5, 2008