December 11, 2002

Declaration on the importance of the Universal Museum

Posted at 12:59 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

More coverage of the declaration on the importance of the Universal Museum – issued without the name of the British Museum included on it, but thought by many to have been masterminded by them. Many have been quick to notice the relevance of this declaration in trying to shore up the British Museums defences for their retention of the Elgin Marbles, against the powerful argument presented by the construction of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.

News Observer

Wednesday, December 11, 2002 3:26PM EST
World galleries back British Museum in dispute with Greece

LONDON (AP) – Several of the world’s leading museums defended the British Museum’s right to keep ancient statues taken from the Parthenon 200 years ago, despite Greek demands for their return.

A letter signed by the directors of 18 museums, including the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said works acquired decades ago have become essential to the museums that house them. “Objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era,” the statement said.

The museum directors’ statement was presented to the British Museum, which released it to The Sunday Times newspaper, Jonathan Williams, assistant to the museum’s director, said Wednesday.

Though the statement did not mention the so-called Elgin Marbles, it was clearly a response to a dispute between the British Museum and Greece over the 17 figures and part of a frieze that decorated the Parthenon atop the Acropolis.

They were removed by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and have been housed in the British Museum in London since the early 19th century. The pieces date from the 5th century B.C.

Athens is pressing for their return by 2004, when the city will host the Olympic Games.

The British Museum says the marbles were acquired legally from the Ottoman government that controlled Greece at the time.

Other signatories of the statement included the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy, and the Prado in Madrid, Spain.

Williams said the statement came out of meetings between the museum directors and that the British Museum didn’t help write it.

The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, told Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos in November that the Elgin Marbles “are among a select group of key objects which are indispensable to the museum’s core function … (and) as such, cannot be lent to any museum, in Greece or elsewhere.”

The museum directors’ statement condemned illegal trafficking in artistic or archaeological objects, but said some art was acquired under different circumstances “not comparable with current ones.”

It said museums also serve the interests of all nations.

“To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors,” the statement said.

Italy, meanwhile, promised Wednesday to return one piece of the marbles. Italian Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani said a fragment on display in Sicily would be loaned to Greece “on a long-term basis.”

The fragment at the Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo is part of the statue of Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction.

The Times

December 08, 2002
Museums unite against return of imperial ‘loot’
Nick Fielding

FORTY of the world’s top museums have issued a landmark statement firmly opposing the repatriation of precious artefacts seized in colonial times.

Released today, it comes amid growing pressure from nations such as Greece and Egypt that lost many of their finest treasures when they were plundered in the 19th century, most notably by Britain.

It is likely to bring to a head a growing international debate over the role of museums and the proper resting place of treasures as diverse as the Elgin marbles and Benin bronzes held in London, the Pergamon altar in Berlin and 5,000 ancient Egyptian works in the Louvre in Paris, including a huge statue of Ramses II.

The museums that put their names to the statement include the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Berlin Museum.

Their “statement on the value of the universal museum” rules out the return of plundered art, arguing that their international role in helping to promote culture should supersede narrower considerations of nationalism and ownership.

“We should acknowledge the essentially destructive nature of the repatriation of objects . . . Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. They serve not just the citizens of one nation, but the people of every nation,” says the statement.

The signatories are all exhibiting museums that meet in an informal grouping to discuss issues they share. The name of the British Museum is included but other UK museums have deliberately been left out to highlight the international nature of the group.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which holds the Elgin marbles, said last night it was vital that museums asserted their role as international institutions for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

“The British Museum was founded in 1753 as a museum of the world,” he said. “All the signatories are predicated on the notion that they belong to everybody.”

Nobody sought to justify what had happened in the past, he said, but it was a question of dealing with the present: “We were particularly concerned after the Greek government made it official policy to seek the return of the Elgin marbles. If all museums were to send back items acquired abroad, the essential nature of these great collections would disappear and we would all be the poorer for it.”

MacGregor said this was a separate issue from the theft of cultural objects during the second world war, where all museums had pledged to search their collections and return items stolen by the Nazis.

The museums’ statement asserts that: “The international museum community shares the belief that illegal traffic in archeological, artistic and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged.” But it adds that objects and monuments installed “decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America” were acquired under very different conditions.

Museums have become increasingly sensitive to demands for restitution, with some taking a sympathetic attitude towards certain categories of artefact. About 40 British museums have agreed, for example, to return items including human remains taken from Australian aborigines and from native Americans.

The Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester has agreed to return four aboriginal skulls to Australia and Leeds Museum is to send jewellery back to the Cook Islands. The Natural History Museum has been in talks with the Chitimacha Indian tribe in Louisiana over the return of cultural artefacts and body parts.

In 1999 Glasgow city council agreed to return a ghost dance shirt — believed to have made the wearer impervious to bullets — from Kelvingrove Museum to the Lakota Sioux Indians of South Dakota. The shirt, on display for more than 100 years, had been worn by a victim of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.

The Italian government recently agreed to return the 78ft Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia. The 3,000-year-old monument was seized by Mussolini’s troops in 1937 and placed in a square in central Rome. The Italians agreed to return it after it was damaged by lightning earlier this year.

New York Times

December 11, 2002
Major Museums Affirm Right to Keep Long-Held Antiquities

Directors of major European and American museums have issued a strongly worded statement affirming their right to keep long-held antiquities that countries like Greece and Egypt, with increasing insistence, have demanded be repatriated.

The statement, signed by directors of 18 museums, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the heads of nine other American institutions, was released last week to a newspaper in London, where the British Museum has resisted Greek demands for the return — even on temporary loan — of the marble sculptures and friezes removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801 to 1803.

That statement acknowledges that illegal traffic in ancient and ethnic artwork should now be “firmly discouraged.” But it argues that objects acquired in the past should be “viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.”

Those objects “have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them,” the statement says.

Nonetheless, the statement notes that each repatriation case should be judged individually. “The point of the statement was not to take clear-cut positions on any individual case,” said James N. Wood, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the signatories, “but really to understand the history, the contribution and the importance of the universal museum as a concept.”

Mr. de Montebello, in an interview yesterday, said that the statement was first discussed at an international meeting of museum directors held in Munich last October. He said it began as a largely European initiative; another museum director, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it began as a “call for help” from Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

Greece has been lobbying hard to have the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, where they would be the centerpiece of a new museum being built at the Acropolis.

The Greek campaign began in earnest some 20 years ago when Melina Mercouri, then minister of culture, made the return of the marbles a matter of national pride. “The marbles were martyred by an Englishman to decorate his house,” said the fiery actress. “It was an act of barbarism. For Greeks the Parthenon isn’t just any monument, it’s the monument. It represents our soul.”

Interestingly, neither the British Museum nor any other museum in Britain are listed among the signatories of the statement, which was circulated electronically as directors made changes to the text. The statement first appeared on Sunday in The Sunday Times of London, where Mr. MacGregor is quoted as supporting the statement.

Many major works of art over the centuries have ended up in museums far from their place of origin, and disputes over ownership surface periodically. There are other unresolved restitution cases besides the Parthenon marbles, including the Pergamon Altar, claimed by Turkey, now at the Pergamon Museum of the state museums of Berlin — among the signatories, along with the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, now held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Lord Elgin obtained Turkish permission to remove the marbles from the Parthenon when he was ambassador to the Ottomon Empire, of which Greece was then a part. They were later sold to the British government, which insists to this day that the marbles were legally obtained.

“Today museums would not condone what people did 200 years ago,” Mr. de Montebello said. “But you cannot rewrite history. Those were different times, with different ethics and different mores.” Mr. de Montebello insisted that the statement did not refer to any recent acquisitions, which are governed by international conventions, including one adopted by Unesco in 1970, and by an increasingly strict interpretations of United States law on stolen property.

In recent years the art world has been rocked by a series of ownership disputes. Heirs of Holocaust victims have laid claim to artwork that was looted by the Nazis, and later improperly sold to collectors and museums. Art-rich countries in Europe, but also Latin America, have become more protective about their cultural patrimony, passing laws that declared anything found beneath the ground to be national property.

Given the perplexing tangle of law, diplomacy and moral claims now facing museums, some directors at the Munich meeting tried to expand the statement to include guidelines for future acquisitions. But that effort failed for lack of a consensus, said one museum director, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Museums feel that they ought to remind people that they are not private collections, that the great works of antiquities are not kept behind closed doors, but that they are out there — to be admired, studied, and viewed,” Mr. de Montebello said. “They are there to be seen in the context of other civilizations.”

Globe and Mail

Tuesday, December 10
Museums assert right to possess artifacts
From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

The world’s top museums say they’ve played a positive role in preserving objects obtained dubiously, but some cultural observers decry the statement as a last-ditch attempt to prop up the British Museum’s continued possession of the famous Parthenon Marbles.
In a 500-word declaration released yesterday, 18 organizations — including the Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Madrid’s Prado Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles — say that “objects acquired in earlier times … whether by purchase, gift or partage … must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.”

The statement, called a “declaration on the importance and value of universal museums,” was drafted after a meeting in October in Munich of the International Council of Museums.

While representatives of the British Museum who attended the meeting did not sign the declaration, that absence “is by no means because we don’t absolutely support it,” a spokeswoman for the museum said yesterday.

“We do. It was just us wanting to make it more of an international statement … and not to get it bogged down on that one argument or those particular objects,” Hannah Boulton said, referring to the marbles.

The only objects specifically mentioned in the four-paragraph declaration are “the sculpture of classical Greece.”

Appreciation of Greek art in the Western world, the statement declares, “appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilizations.”

The British Museum has been the focus of an intense international campaign in recent years to have the Parthenon Marbles it has housed for almost two centuries returned to their original home in Athens.

The marbles, dating from the fifth century BC, were taken to London from Turkish-occupied Greece over 10 years at the turn of the 19th century by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople.

Greece made an official request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles in 1983, but England has steadfastly refused the request, saying the artifacts’ continued well-being is best served by keeping them at the British Museum.

Steve Ashton, Minister of Conservation for Manitoba’s NDP government and secretary of the Canadian Committee for the Repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles, said yesterday that the museums’ declaration “shows the growing momentum of the movement” for returning the works to Athens.

In fact, the statement can be seen as both an attempt to forestall their transfer and “an anticipation on the part of these other museums that the Parthenon Marbles just could be returning to Athens,” Mr. Ashton said.

Bribes helped smooth their exit from Athens and in 1816 Lord Elgin sold them to the British Museum for what today would be about $5-million.

For the past two years repatriation advocates have focused on getting the marbles back to Greece by mid-2004, in time for the Olympic Summer Games in Athens.

The Greek government has said it would build a new climate-controlled, smog-proof Acropolis museum there to permit the reunification of the so-called Elgin Marbles with the remaining marbles of the Parthenon. It’s even suggested the English marbles go to Greece on a long-term loan while Greece, in return, would lease some of its most important artifacts to the British Museum. Their box-office draw would help that institution reduce its $12-million deficit.

Recent polls indicate the majority of Britons favour the return of the Parthenon Marbles. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, thinks they should stay, while the trustees of the British Museum recently proclaimed their institution “a truly universal museum of humanity accessible to five million visitors every year free of charge.”

Mr. Ashton said arguments for showcasing the marbles in London might have been valid decades ago, “but those arguments don’t apply in an increasingly globalized world, a world of cultural tourism.”

No Canadian museums or galleries are signatories to the declaration. Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, said he was unable to attend the Munich meeting, but had he been asked to sign a draft, “I would have.”

“We must acknowledge the exchange of ideas between cultures that museums so ably facilitate,” he said, “and we must consider that in individual circumstances specific judgments must be made.”

The lost marbles


Thomas Bruce, seventh Lord Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, began a collection of ancient Greek sculptures and architectural details. The artifacts were moved from the Parthenon in Athens and other ancient buildings, then shipped to England, causing both controversy and an investigation by Parliament.


Ships sailed back to England with the artifacts. One ship was lost in a storm off Greece, but its cargo was recovered. Lord Elgin left the embassy in 1803 and arrived in England in 1806. During the next 10 years, the collection remained private, against Lord Elgin’s wishes. Lord Elgin was the victim of much criticism, but eventually was able to put the collection on display to the public. In 1812, the Crown bought the collection for £35,000, less than half of what it cost Lord Elgin to get it home.


The Greek government demanded the return of the marbles, but the British refused and the issue remains unresolved.

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