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Can the New Acropolis Museum make a difference for the Elgin Marbles?

In any statements given at the time of the New Acropolis Museum [1]‘s opening, British Museum officials all stated that the opening of the new building made no difference to the arguments for reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. If this is the case, then the British Museum’s intransigence potentially has a knock on detrimental effect for many other restitution cases. In many respects though it could be the opposite – the British establishment are digging their heels in & burying their heads in the sand because they can see that the tide is turning in favour of repatriation & there is nothing that they can do to halt its progress.

Nigeria Guardian [2]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Row over Parthenon Marbles… new restitution challenges for Africa
By Tajudeen Sowole

RECENTLY, Greece opened its much-awaited museum, New Acropolis Museum, housing sculptures from the memorable age of ancient Athens. However, the Greek Government’s hope that the new museum would appease the British Museum that was dashed, as the latter remained adamant in granting a request for the return of parts of the Greek sculptures known as Parthenon Marbles – named Elgin Marbles by the British.

Out of an estimated 160 metres original of these marble sculptures, 75 are known to be in the British Museum while the rest are in Greece and Italy.

Build-up to the completion of the museum suggested that the British Museum’s argument that “Greece lacks the right condition to receive the marbles” would be dead when the museum opens.

During the opening ceremony of the museum Greek President, Karolos Papoulias said the museum offers the opportunity “to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.” Built at the cost of £110m ($182m; 130m euros), the opening of the museum was attended by heads of state and cultural envoys from about 30 countries including the UN and the EU.

Sources said the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer present at the event stressed that the marbles should remain in London. She was quoted as saying that in London, the marbles were displayed in an international cultural context. A loan to Greece, she suggested, could be possible only “if Greece acknowledges British ownership of the marbles.”

In 1817, during the Ottoman Empire rule over Greece, British Ambassador to Greece, Lord Elgin was said to have ordered the removal of the Parthenon sculptures and later sold them to the British Museum. Now known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, they were originally used to decorate the Parthenon temple of Acropolis in Greece, but about half are currently in the U.K.

If a museum built at the cost of $182m, (226, 000-square-foot) in Europe – adjudged by the rest of the world to be standard – was not good enough to convince the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, apparently, it is unlikely that African countries seeking repatriation would sail through.

“There is hope,” artist and scholar on Benin Antiquities, Dr. Peju Layiwola assured, noting that “every case on its own merit.” The Benin case, she argued, is one of the most documented “cases of historical injustice. It is a moral debt, which the West has to pay. We will continue to remind them that what was carried out in Nigeria was outright looting.”

On-going efforts to have Nigeria’s looted artifacts at Museums in Europe and America returned are yet to produce any significant success story. On adequate facilities to justify repossession of these objects, few months ago, a project of the Ford Foundation and the newly formed Arts and Business Foundation projected a new deal worth $2m to rescue the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. It was believed that a standard museum as contemplated by this project would give the country a better opportunity to have its artifacts returned, among other benefits. But with the new row on Elgin Marbles, it appeared that British Museum would not stop shifting the goal posts; Africa, particularly Nigeria, would be the ultimate victim.

When Greer put the position of the British Museum within international museum context, she was actually promoting an idea that is fast catching up with the popularity of repatriation: In 2002, a group known as Bizot and consisting of 20 directors of museum across Europe and America took a position towards a redefinition of who owns what. Under the forum known as Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, certain artifacts, they argued, should be seen as universally owned.

The politics of repatriation is taking another dimension. In March this year, an auction of belongings of St Yves Saint Laurent and his former partner, Pierre Berge, which recorded $483.8 million, also produced an embarrassment for the auction house, Christie’s, when a bidder of some controversial objects of Chinese goat head lots refused to pay after winning the bid. Weeks before the auction, the Chinese Government had failed, through a legal process, to stop the auction; it claimed that the bronze heads were looted by French and British soldiers during the Second Opium War in 1860 and therefore should be returned.

The winning bidder, a Chinese named Cai Mingchao had disclosed that his refusal to pay for the lots was a protest to stop the sale of the objects.

But India had a different approach when it saved the memorabilia of its foremost statesman, Mahatma Gandhi from being sold into a private collection at a New York, U.S. auction, also in March. The objects were metal-rimmed glasses; a pocket watch, pair of sandals; a plate and bowl, all items used by Gandhi in his days.

After negotiation between the government and the owner of the objects James Otis failed, Indian businessman Vijay Mallya – suspected to be fronting for the government – put in a $1.8 million and got the objects returned to India.

Objects of historical relics are so precious such that revered institution like the Vatican could not insulate itself from controversy. One part of three Parthenon Marbles said to be in possession of the Pope was released to Greece last year, on loan. Earlier, the Vatican had refused Greece’s request but settled for loan instead of outright return of the objects. Even at that, observers wondered why the Vatican’s action came one month after Italy had returned – not loaned – a part of the sculpture held at a museum in Sicily; value of these treasure objects knows no boundary.

Most recent row was on new exhibition of ancient African ceramics, African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage held at the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva.

Not a few observers of the politics of restitution were surprised that the New Acropolis Museum could not change the policy direction of the British Museum on the issue, at least on the Elgin Marbles. Prof. Perkins Foss, a veteran on African culture and museum who always argue for better museum facilities as possible bait for repatriation, agreed that the game has to change, this time around: “And now is the time for the British and Greeks to look to ways to develop a win-win situation in which cooperation between the museums develops.”

Director General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joseph Eborieme was surprised that the New Acropolis Museum could not make the difference on the return of the Parthenon. “Now that the Acropolis Museum is in place, the British Museum is not on legitimate ground to still hold on to the Elgin Marbles,” Eborieme argued, noting that this development is out of place with the new spirit in some other places. For example, “the Canadian Government through the Nigerian High Commission just returned some objects to Nigeria.”

On efforts of the NCMM to get more artifacts of Nigerian origin returned, Eborieme restated that, “we are using the machineries of UNESCO as well as hoping that the Ford Foundation assistance in rehabilitating the National Museum would make all the difference.”