June 6, 2008

Christopher Hitchens versus James Cuno

Posted at 11:49 am in Elgin Marbles, Greece Archaeology, New Acropolis Museum, Similar cases

Christopher Hitchens has just released a revised & updated edition of his book on the Parthenon Sculptures: The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?
As any who have read this book will know, it takes pretty much the opposite viewpoint to James Cuno’s new book on the ownership of cultural property.
In this review, the two books are compared together. Whilst the reviewer seems to follow Cuno’s viewpoint, comments posted afterwards correct some of the inbalance in this piece.

The New Statesman

Losing our marbles?
Robin Simon
Published 05 June 2008

It is one of the most controversial issues in the art world today – should museums disperse their collections and return antiquities to their original sites? In particular, should the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum be restored to Athens?

With the opening of its glamorous new Acropolis Museum, the Greek campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles appears to have shot itself in the foot. A few years ago, the remaining pieces of the great frieze of the Parthenon in Athens – those not on display at the British Museum – were taken down from the long-suffering temple for conservation. It is now clear that they will never be put back. They have gone on display in the museum, mounted in a gallery that has the identical dimensions of the Parthenon. Joining them, set in their correct locations, are replicas of the originals in London. So far, so good, one might think. But hang on. The replicas are covered in wire mesh veils to represent, it seems, some kind of mourning. This is not didacticism: this is propaganda.

Greece’s minister for culture, Michalis Liapis, has claimed: “For the first time, after 25 centuries, the sculptures are being transferred to the new Acropolis Museum . . . It naturally raises our demand for the reunification of the Par thenon marbles.” It is not clear why. Now that the remaining Parthenon frieze has been taken down, there is little, aesthetically, in favour of the return of those parts taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. It is only a pity that the Greek authorities did not long ago take casts of their own bits of the frieze, for they have suffered terribly from the poisonous atmosphere of modern Athens. Now it is too late. The casts of the far better-preserved marbles in the British Museum hint, beneath their wire mesh, at the glory that was Greece, and so there must be an awful suspicion that the veils are there not to tell, but to disguise, the truth.

As a matter of fact, replicas – casts of originals – have a most honourable history, and it is foolish for the Acropolis Museum to misuse them in this way. Trajan’s Column, for instance, is far more satisfactorily preserved in the form of the 19th-century casts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London than it is in Rome, where pollution and precipitation have ruined the surface of the carvings. If you want to see Trajan’s Column, go to South Kensington, where it is conveniently cut in two. Admittedly, in that sense, it is a freak. But its very survival is freakish. In the 1960s, all the V&A casts – as indeed happened with so many casts of classical statues in art colleges up and down the land – were threatened with destruction on the grounds that such things were hopelessly out of date.

The moral ground for restitution of the Elgin Marbles, James Cuno argues, is even wobblier than the aesthetic. (It should be stressed that he talks more about objects from other parts of the world than he does about this notorious case.) There is just one argument in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles: the nationalistic one, and Cuno asserts that it does not count. This is at the heart of his radical analysis of who owns, as he puts it, “antiquity” (defined, since you ask, as something more than 150 years old). He divides the ownership, and the demands for ownership, of antiquities into two. On the one hand there is the international “encyclopaedic” museum, which he describes as “a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissipation of ignorance and superstition . . . dedicated to ideas, not ideologies”. On the other hand, there are the dark forces of nationalism and “retentionist cultural property laws”. It is not only the bien-pensants of the media who have espoused this cause: the international archaeological profession has done so.

The contradictions in this position are almost without number. For instance, archaeologists argue in favour of retentionism on the grounds that it will stop looting and destruction. But this has not happened. Looting is as bad as ever it was. Indeed, Cuno observes, nationalistic policies towards antiquities can make things worse and actively “promote a sectarian view of culture and encourage the politics of identity, at a time when nationalism and sectarian violence are resurgent around the world”. Then again, without the encyclopaedic museums, many of those most loudly in favour of retentionism “could not teach and research as they do now. Much of their work is dependent on a policy no longer legal in the countries with jurisdiction over the archeological materials they study.”

At the basis of the nationalistic claims are some fairly grotesque and unhistorical assertions, some more unpleasant than others, and Cuno implicitly poses the question: “Whose nation is it anyway?” Who, for example, are the Greeks? Anyone who has been to one of those wonderful banquets at which Greeks excel will know that within minutes several different individuals will be claiming to represent the Greeks of classical times racially, while dismissing fellow Greeks around them as impure impostors. All cultures, Cuno points out, are dynamic, and nationalistic cultural laws “deny this basic truth”.

His is a cogent and powerful argument that he expresses with personal conviction. Cuno is moving about his first visit to the Louvre: “these magnificent cultures were not foreign . . . they were mine, too. Or, rather, I was theirs.” And he cites the British Museum’s founding am bition of “the world under one roof”. He is equally moving about the affinity between “the recent rise in nationalistic and sectarian violence and the pervasive misunderstanding, even intolerance, of other cultures”. It is an important perception. Museums matter.

Cuno’s bold defence of the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities is more difficult to take, but then, he is director of the Art Institute of Chicago and so, we may think, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But he says it well. “The real argument over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities is not what it appears to be . . . It is not really between art museums and archaeologists about the protection of the archaeological record . . . it is between museums and modern nation states and their nationalistic claims.” And he has a trump card in the weighty shape of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum.

We do not know the archaeological context in which the Rosetta Stone was found by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1799. In the current argument over the relative value of antiquities of this kind, the Rosetta Stone, Cuno observes, “would be pronounced meaningless”. Intriguingly, if the stone were to be discovered today in some private collection, its publication would be forbidden in any archaeological journal. Egypt calls for the return of the stone, even though at the time of its excavation there was no such state as Egypt. There must, one feels, be as reasonable a case for the relocation of this famous relic to the town of Figeac in la France profonde, where a fine new museum celebrates its greatest son, Champollion, who realised that the stone’s multilingual inscriptions held the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Christopher Hitchens’s book is more guilty of special pleading than Cuno’s. The blurb strikes an uncomfortable note, referring to Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles in overheated terms: “chunks” of the marbles were “sawn off” and Elgin subsequently “sold them to parliament to pay his debts”. The whole thing is described as “this scandal”. Well, no, as a matter of fact. It was not so at the time. Hitchens may hold it to be so now, but that is quite a different thing. This is a pity, because there is much historical value in his book and he has looked quite closely at contemporary and subsequent discussions of the sculptures. Hitchens is persuasive, for example, that Greek opinion at the time of the Marbles’ removal was not merely one of indifference, as has frequently been claimed.

The big problem is his presumption that if only the recalcitrant British imperialists would repent of their sins and make restitution as an act of penance, the Parthenon could be restored with all its marbles intact. We now know that, because of the actions of the Greeks themselves, this can never happen.

Frankly, there is not much of the Parthenon left: a mere shell, to be glimpsed from the windows of the new gallery. We must hope that a full set of replicas – even though they record such varied states of preservation – will be repositioned upon its majestic frame. The original sculptures, it seems, everyone is now agreed, are better off in a museum . . . And Hitchens’s book echoes with the siren song of nationalism to which, Cuno warns, we ought to stop our ears. Cuno wins on points.

Robin Simon is editor of the British Art Journal

User submitted comments follow:

Bruce Blades
06 June 2008 at 01:57

I ask Robin Simon to read the Hansard record of the 1816 House Of Commons debate. This is the most accurate reliable record of Elgin’s plunder. The British Parliamentarians knew that what Elgin did was wrong!

Elgin used his position as British Ambassador to take away the heritage of Greece at a time when it was under the rule of the Ottomans. Despite all that has happened to it over the years the Parthenon is still an iconic architectural masterpiece which draws people to it from all round the world.

The issue is that if the world is to view these sculptures at their best (half are in London and half are in Athens) the originals should be reunited and the proper location for this is Athens.

06 June 2008 at 09:09


Cuno is a defender of the so-called “universal museums”, now called “encyclopedic museums” and perhaps more correctly, imperialistic or totalitarian museums. The museum that never has enough of anything and seeks a total control of all cultural objects by all means, including the use of force by the army of the country where the museum is situated-Louvre, British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. These museums now lament the end of the imperialistic and colonial period in which they amassed most of their stock. This was the period when the Europeans could take virtually from any country what ever cultural object they desired. That period is, mercifully, at an end and Cuno and co are agitating for the return to that system, so-called partage system which enabled the Europeans to take away massive archaeological objects from countries like Egypt. Cuno labels those who seek the return of the stolen cultural objects as nationalists but what about those who fight to keep the objects in the museums of the West, are they internationalists or what?

This new book does not advance in anyway the debate about the restitution of cultural objects. On the contrary it will only help to solidify the known positions. That leading museum directors do not understand the desire of Africans and Asians to recover their stolen cultural objects, is a sad commentary on the cultural landscape of the world. The perspective would have appeared better without the addition of this book which will only serve as additional object for heated controversies and it comes from a museum director of one of the leading museums of the Western world.

Kwame Opoku. 22 May,2008.

06 June 2008 at 20:34

Two hundred years ago, economic and military power left Asia. In those years the West has plundered the World and there isno end in sight.

In the UK old houses are protected, their original structure must be maintained by any owner, however when it comes to ancient sites, when it comes to the cradle of civilisation tanks are driven over the Mesopotamian, Babylonian , Assyrian and Sumerian sites.

The ancient nations of Asia have suffered most terribly at the hands of the West.

12 June 2008 at 05:11

Whether the British Museum ever loses the Parthenon Marbles remains to be seen, but it is pretty clear that Robin Simon has already lost his. Even a cursory glance at the scholarship on this matter reveals that the marbles ought to be returned to Greece for cultural, aesthetic, political and moral reasons. This article is complete rubbish, equivalent to what in America we might see if Fox News covered the story of the marbles.

13 June 2008 at 10:36

Robin Simon appears to be losing his facts.

He writes that the Greek replicas of the parthenon sculptures in the Elgin collection ” are covered in wire mesh veils to represent, it seems, some kind of mourning”, adding that “this is propaganda”. Had he actually visited the new Acropolis museum which he describes he would have seen that this rumour is completely false: there are no such wires there.

One suspects that his (currently unverifiable) claim about the terrible state of the Greek-owned “bits of the frieze” is also based on unreliable hearsay . He would have done better to stick to the facts, such as the well document fact that in 1937-8 the British Museum caused irreparable damage by accidentally scraped away the detail of many of the pieces in the Elgin collection, removing as much as 2.5mm from certain pieces. Yet Simon ommits to mention this incident which even the British Museum has acknowledged. Did somebody mention propaganda?

20 June 2008 at 09:45


Get your facts right Mr Simon before you express your personal opinions.

Actually, the marbles in athens are in a much better condition following a high tech cleaning process. The Parthenon that were exposed to polution display more original details compared than ones in London.

The article is a disgrace and just pure propaganda!!

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