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They’ve lost their marbles, and they want the world to know

The Boston Globe has an in depth article about the Greek case for the return of the Elgin Marbles in the lead up to the Olympics.

Boston Globe [1]

They’ve lost their marbles, and they want the world to know
Greek exhibit presses Britain to return Parthenon sculptures
By Charles M. Sennott and Sarah Liebowitz, Globe Staff And Globe Correspondent
July 12, 2004

ATHENS — Art exhibits often have missions or political statements. But the goal of an exhibit opening next month at the Parthenon, the jewel of Athenian art and culture, is more specific than most: It is intended to provoke London’s British Museum into loaning its Parthenon sculptures to Greece.

Timed to coincide with the millions of tourists flooding into Athens for the Summer Olympics, the exhibit, which is expected to open Aug. 2, has been assembled to starkly illustrate what the Greeks see as an injustice. It occurred in the 19th century, when the British Lord Elgin and his team of excavators hacked nearly half of the marble sculptures and friezes off the Parthenon and toted them back to London, where they are housed in the British Museum.

The British Museum has refused to return the “Parthenon marbles,” as they are known, despite a cultural and political campaign in Greece to have the pieces returned and rejoined with the other remains of the Parthenon. British Museum officials have declined to be interviewed about the matter and have instead issued statements about the marbles.

The exhibit, which is in the final planning stages, will illustrate how Elgin — who in 1799 became the British ambassador to Constantinople, then the seat of the Ottoman Empire — removed statues and friezes that were embedded in the very architecture of the Parthenon.

Dr. Alcestis Choremi, the director of the New Acropolis Museum, which is under construction, said the exhibit will highlight the Western frieze of the Parthenon, from which Elgin removed most of the sculptures. With explanatory notes and an accompanying lecture series, the exhibit intends to make clear that by removing the marbles, Elgin dismantled the Parthenon itself.

“The intention of the exhibit will be to show the world our case, that we would like to unite the pieces of the frieze and the statues,” Choremi said. “Now we think the Olympics will be a chance to get the world interested, to put the pressure on the British to finally return these important pieces of our heritage.”

Greece’s deputy minister of culture, Fani Palli-Petralia, said the exhibit aims to “play up the idea that the British must return these treasures. This is a national issue for us, a political issue, and one for all the world to know about, because the Acropolis is a monument of civilization for all of the world.”

The controversy between the British Museum and Greece has spurred academics and politicians around the globe to consider broader questions about the claims that nations have on art and the manner in which art should be displayed. There is a growing movement toward the “repatriation” of art that was looted or carted off by one empire — or crusading archeologists — and ended up in the great museums of the world. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Choremi pointed out, returned important fragments of ancient Greek vases in 1998, and the German government returned fragments of the building of ancient Olympia in 2001.

In Greece, the conflict has led to the New Acropolis Museum, meant to open alongside the Olympic Games in the shadow of the Parthenon. But construction has been delayed since ancient artifacts were discovered during the digging of the foundation. For now, the construction site is essentially a vast hole in the ground with circular, concrete pilings that will hold the foundation.

After years of tussling with the British political and cultural establishment over the return of the marbles, Greece has changed its tack. Rather than demanding restitution, Greece is now asking the British Museum to simply loan its Parthenon sculptures to the New Acropolis Museum.

Greece’s former minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, proposed that the British Museum deliver the Parthenon marbles to Greece through either a long-term loan or the creation of a British annex in Greece’s New Acropolis Museum. In exchange, Greece promises to offer on loan to Britain a number of “priceless” antiquities.

“The request for the return of the Parthenon marbles is not made merely by the Greek nation or in the name of history but in the name of the world’s cultural heritage,” Venizelos said. “Indeed, until restitution is made, the mutilated monument will be seen as a sad reproach to that heritage.”

In a recent statement, the British Museum rejected Venizelos’s appeal. “The Greek Government is not asking for a loan in the ordinary sense. Their aim has always been the perpetual removal of all the fragments now in London,” the statement reads. “This absolute position makes it virtually impossible for Trustees to have serious discussions.”

The focal point of the New Acropolis Museum’s design is a glass enclosure that mirrors the dimensions of the Parthenon, in which Greece hopes to house all of the marbles, only 300 yards from the Parthenon itself. If Britain refuses to loan the marbles, the new museum will instead house vast empty spaces intended to serve as a monument to Britain’s guilt. The exhibit opening this month offers a glimpse of this theme.

In recent years the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum — where the controversial sculptures reside — has been the site of raging conflict. At the 1982 UN Cultural Policies conference, Greece’s then-minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, initiated a successful resolution calling for the return of the Parthenon marbles. Britain, in turn, claimed legal ownership. To contrast the image of Elgin as a thief, the British Museum portrays Elgin as a courageous art-lover, claiming in a recent statement that “the continuing destruction of classical sculptures persuaded Elgin to endeavor to remove for posterity what sculptures he could.”

The questioned legality of the marbles’ ownership harkens back to their history in Britain. Elgin returned to Britain and, in financial ruin, set about selling the marbles to the British government. A Parliamentary committee determined that Elgin had acquired the sculptures legally, despite the fact that he had taken them from a Greece occupied by Ottoman Turks.

The British government bought the marbles from Elgin for a paltry $64,000 in 1816, and for nearly two centuries the breathtaking marbles — 274 of the original 524 feet of frieze, 15 of the Parthenon’s 92 metopes, and 17 pedimental figures — have graced the British Museum.

Freddie New, head of the press office for the London-based British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, says the debate in the 1980s centered on “hard-core restitution,” the question of national claim on the Parthenon marbles. Yet in the 22 years since the UN resolution, the British Museum has made clear it will not relinquish the marbles.

The plans for the New Acropolis Museum counter the British Museum’s longstanding critique of how Greece has cared for its Parthenon marbles. In a recent statement about the marbles, the British Museum writes of the Greek Parthenon sculptures that “the majority are either in store and unavailable to the public, or still on the building and at risk from weathering and pollution.” The new museum — designed by New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi — would place all of the Parthenon sculptures on display, in a protected facility.

And in terms of caretaking, the British Museum has been forced to hang its head. In 1999, the museum hosted a conference to discuss the potential damage during its 1937-38 “restoration” of the marbles, when masons set about scraping and sanding the sculptures. While the results remain debated, many believe the masons irreversibly harmed the marbles.

In the meantime, the British Museum takes a populist — it charges no entry fee — and cultural stance in its defense. It asserts that it is in a better place, geographically and otherwise, to exhibit the pieces and put them in the context of the history of civilization. The museum, which claims 4.6 million visitors a year, says it provides “a world museum in which Greece’s cultural debts . . . can be clearly seen, and the contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements . . . can be fully understood.”

“The Parthenon itself has been irretrievably damaged since the seventeenth century. The restoration of the integrity of the building is thus an unachievable goal,” Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said in January. “Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped.”

Sennott reported from Greece; Liebowitz reported from London.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.