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Elginism – the origins of a word

Although the term Elginism is derived from Lord Elgin, even cursory research will show that the practice dates back far earlier. At the time that people such as Howard Carter were exploring Egypt for instance, the majority of the royal tombs had already been looted hundreds, of not thousands of years before.

I first heard of the term during a lecture [1] by Mary Beard [2] at the School of Advanced Studies [3], which was part of the Ethics Programme of their Institute of Philosophy, in 2000. Some time after that, it occured to me that it would be an interesting name for a website on the subject, but found that the domain name was already in use for the posters relating to TBWA’s advertising campaign [4] in Greece about the Parthenon Marbles. Some time after this though, I noticed that their site had been deleted & purchased the domain.

Since then, I have both researched & developed the definition of the term Elginism [5] and to an extent have popularised it, as the vast majority of references to it found online relate to this website. The earliest references that I came across to the term were from the New Scientist in 1990 [6]. Since then it had cropped up occasionally in books & journals, but I could not find any earlier references. As a result I assumed that at the earliest, the word originated from some time during the mid 1980s, as this would tie in with the period in which Melina Mercouri [7] spearheaded renewed efforts to retrieve the sculptures for Greece.

Out of interest, I looked up the term on the recently introduced google book search [8], part of a project that amongst other things, involves the scanning of the archives of many libraries & where possible making the scans available online & searchable through optical character recognition. I was not prepared though for how old this would reveal the use of the term to be.

The initial search revealed 53 books or journals [9] that had mentioned the word, only a few of which I had come across before. Some of these historic references referred to quite a different use of the word, relating to the son of the seventh Earl of Elgin [10], who became Governor General of Canada [11]. Some more related to the destruction of old houses in France [12] – something that I had previously known to have been described as Elginism. These uses of the terms already took me back as far as 1930.

Stepping back still earlier though, references once more seemed to relate to my own understanding of the word, and it is mentioned in this context in 1895 [13]. The earliest mention that I cam across though was from Francis Lister Hawks’s book The Monuments of Egypt: Or, Egypt a Witness for the Bible [14] which dated from 1850. Helpfully, this was one of the books that was out of copyright & thus allowed me to view the passage referring to the word which was on page 42. On reading page 42 I could find no mention of it however, but later discovered that the book had bound at its end another book, Journal of a Voyage up the Nile written anonymously (the title page merely states by an American) in 1848 & 1849. This book was also later available separately & editions from that period are available in various [15] antiquarian booksellers [16].

The passage that mentions the term is still using it in exactly the way that it is used today, but also uses it in a way that suggests that the word is relatively widely understood (we must also note that this is by an American author, so theoretically he would be less aware of what was going on in Britain).

The actual sentence that relates to Elginism is:

The idea that the captives in this tomb were Joseph’s brethren, which Mrs. Romer in her Travels, makes such a great noise about, is well exposed by Miss Martineau; as well as the Elginism of Mrs. Romer, in removing a figure of one of the captives.

So, not only was the term used at that time, in reference to the practices of Lord Elgin, but it is clear from the way it is written, that by 1850, such practices were already frowned on by many – suggesting that whilst what what Elgin did may have been acceptable at the time he did it, it become regarded as unacceptable less than 50 years after.

If anyone has an earlier example of the use of the word, please let me know.