December 19, 2002

Museums fear being pressured into returning artefacts

Posted at 8:52 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Many large museums around the world now live in fear of artefacts being removed from their collections, despite the fact, that in many cases the museums themselves are fully aware of the dubious provenance of the works in question.

Chicago Tribune

Posted on Thu, Dec. 19, 2002
Museums balk at returning art objects acquired centuries ago
Chicago Tribune

(KRT) – Art museums have been asked to return works stolen by Nazis from wealthy Jews. Native Americans have demanded the return of human remains and sacred objects taken without permission from their ancestors and now in the hands of history museums.

If at first these museums balked at losing some of their most treasured possessions, they soon bowed to both laws and public opinion and repatriated many artifacts.

The process had become commonplace enough that a statement by 18 directors of the world’s most prominent art museums made public last week was startling in its contrary position.

While the museums have no dispute with requests by Nazi survivors or Native Americans, they take issue with a rising tide of claims for repatriation of antiquities acquired centuries ago in an atmosphere of ethical standards far different from today.

The signatories, including James Wood, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, argued that long-held antiquities in their collections “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 is seen by some as an indication of how deeply worried museum administrators are about erosion of their core collections. Especially worrisome are antiquities that came to their collections from colonial lands 100 or 200 or more years ago during the heyday of 18th and 19th century western imperial conquest.

Released in London, the statement was issued in the face of increasingly insistent demands on museums from nations such as Greece and Egypt that want priceless historical relics returned to them. The Elgin Marbles is an example.

The British Museum acquired the priceless marble frieze from the Parthenon in Greece 200 years ago in a way that would be illegal by today’s standards of museum ethics.

“Is there a statute of limitations on this sort of thing?” asked Neal Harris, a University of Chicago historian.

“I don’t think you can issue flat-out edicts on the return of things acquired centuries ago. It’s very complex when things are taken a long time ago. If people can make legal claims in those sorts of situations, it would put all museums at risk, not to mention individual collectors,” he said.

Wood called each of the museums signing the statement “universal museums” that display in one place great works of art from all the world’s cultures, with examples of their art represented from antiquity through the modern era.

“This is a much broader issue than the question of national patrimony,” he said. The statement is not “trying to make clear-cut positions on any particular repatriation case, but get people to understand the history, contributions and importance of the universal museum concept.”

Wood insisted the statement simply reiterates the position most museums have taken for many years. It was formulated during an international meeting in Munich of more than 200 art museum directors who “thought it would be positive thing to affirm our thinking.”

What may have triggered the statement is a 200-year battle the British Museum is having with Greek authorities over ownership of the Elgin Marbles.

In 1801, when Greece was a part of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador at the Ottoman court, got permission to remove the exquisitely sculpted frieze from the Parthenon in Athens.

At the time, the Parthenon building, erected in 450 B.C., was a steadily crumbling ruin so ignored by the Ottomans that, had Elgin not rescued the frieze, historians believe it would have been lost forever.

By the time Elgin sold the frieze to the British Museum in 1816, Greeks were demanding its return, as were many prominent Britons. But the sculptures have inspired so many generations of artists and historians at the British Museum that they are considered among the most seminal cultural influences in western civilization.

In recent years, Greece has mounted a new campaign to have the sculptures returned in time for the staging of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.

The Greek campaign has won a surprising amount of public sympathy in England. A poll reported in the Times of London in October showed 56 percent of all Britons favored giving the sculptures back to Greece, though 76 percent of those polled said they knew “not much” or “nothing” about the sculptures.

“I think what’s new,” said Kimberly Rorschach, director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, “is this notion of claiming illegalities in transactions that happened 200 years ago or more.

“The Elgin Marbles legally were removed with the permission of the Ottoman government. To look at it with our own sense of justice today, the legality might be called into question, but I don’t think we can go back and change what happened 200 years ago.”

What is going on, said Ohio State University historian Steven Conn, is an evolution of the concept of cultural patrimony, artifacts that embody the history and essential spirit and beauty of a nation’s peoples.

“The Europeans developed a fairly confident sense of their cultural patrimony by the late 19th century,” he said.

That sense came in no small part because of their unease in seeing rich Americans swarming across their lands, buying up refinement by the boatload in the form of fine and decorative arts, and shipping it across the Atlantic.

“At some point,” said Conn, “European governments decided the Americans were taking away too much, that it represented a raid on their cultural heritage.

“They began enacting regulations about what sorts of artifacts that could and could not legally leave their countries, and so the notion of `cultural patrimony’ was born.”

Conn said there is a danger in trying to reverse what’s already happened.

“It is very easy to issue retroactive indictments on the past. That is a tricky and dangerous business,” said Conn, author of a 1998 book on museum history, “Museums and American Intellectual Life.”

“Had Elgin not rescued the Marbles from the frieze at the Parthenon, they almost certainly would have been destroyed. If you regard this sort of material as somehow transcending notions of ownership belonging to the world, you can see museums as ideal repositories for them.

“Much of the material that survives in museums from ancient Mesopotamia, located on the border of modern Iran and Iraq, would have been destroyed by war in the last 20 years had it remained in the ground,” he said.

“Think of the lunatic government in Afghanistan blowing up the giant Buddha sculptures. The whole museum enterprise has its roots in western expansion and imperialism, but these institutions should not be burdened with that responsibility, but only be mindful of it.

“The kind of public service these museums provide is pretty remarkable.”

New York Times

December 19, 2002
Reassembling Sundered Antiquities

It’s the latest flare-up in the longstanding dispute over the Parthenon marbles — removed from Greece to Britain in the early 19th century under controversial circumstances. Greece is lobbying hard to have the so-called Elgin marbles, Britain’s portion of the Parthenon frieze, returned to Athens in time for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The British Museum’s director says the marbles are “indispensable” and “cannot be lent to any museum.”

The contretemps reportedly prompted the recent statement by 18 prominent museum directors defending the right of museums to retain long-held foreign antiquities. Such works, the directors said, have become “part of the heritage of the nations which house them,” even if they were acquired by “partage” — a polite word for pillage and other forms of expropriation.

But the statement overlooks a crucial fact. Several disputed sculptures and monuments — most notably, the Parthenon frieze — are sundered, with fragments residing in separate museums. Rather than fighting over the Parthenon marbles, Greece and Britain should work to reunite the fragments and take turns displaying the reassembled ancient masterpiece. In so doing, they would be honoring the museological imperative to put the highest priority on the integrity of the art work.

Designed in the fifth century B.C. to depict the procession of the Panathenaic festival, Athens’ quadrennial celebration, the Parthenon marbles were pried apart by the acquisitive Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who removed much of the temple’s decoration to England with the acquiescence of the occupying Turks.

Reassembling the marbles would require some creative diplomatic and practical maneuvers. But there are smaller-scale precedents for reassembling sundered art. Twenty-eight years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris reunited the head and torso of a rare neo-Sumerian statue dating from 2100 B.C., agreeing to take turns displaying the restored work. Earlier this year, the 15th-century panels from a triptych by Fra Angelico, owned separately by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, were reunited. And at an exhibition last spring at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, the head and torso were reassembled from an early Cycladic marble dating from the third millennium B.C. These pieces are separately owned by the Getty museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Admittedly, shipping tons of marble across Europe is a heftier proposition. The elegant, energetic Parthenon frieze is now split among the British Museum in London, which has more than half of the surviving slabs; the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has most of the rest; the Louvre in Paris, which has one slab; and five other European museums, which have fragments. In several cases, pieces of a single slab are split between London and Athens. In a symbolic gesture last week, Italy announced a long-term loan to Greece of a small fragment of the frieze, depicting the foot of Peitho, goddess of persuasion.

Sadly, even the most concerted efforts at cultural diplomacy and art restoration will never make the frieze whole. Portions were lost in various upheavals, including the conversion of the temple into a church in about 450 A.D. and a direct hit by a shell during a Venetian siege in 1687, when the structure was used by the Turks for military purposes.

Moreover, the marbles long ago lost their pigments and the pieces of metal that were affixed to depict weapons and horses’ trappings. They suffered further indignities in the 20th century: They were eroded and discolored in Athens by some of Europe’s worst pollution and in London by a misguidedly harsh scrubbing in the late 1930’s. Darkened and weathered in Greece, whitened in England, the ancient celebrants might look more like distant cousins than siblings were they to meet up at a family reunion.

Still, art lovers and scholars would rejoice at the chance to see one of the world’s most celebrated monumental artworks at least partially reassembled and, at last, well cared for.

The Greeks are now trying to sweeten their pitch for the marbles in the British Museum. They have offered Britain major exhibitions of other ancient art. They have also stopped asserting ownership of the expatriate slabs, asking instead for the panels to be returned as a long-term loan. The reunited pieces would take their place in a new glass-enclosed Parthenon Gallery, which would crown a new museum to be built below the ancient temple.

There is considerable doubt, however, that this museum-building project, some 25 years in discussion, will be completed in time for the 2004 Olympics. And this delay could provide Greece with an opportunity to sweeten its offer further. The Greeks should now agree to lend their signature treasure to the British Museum until the inadequate old Acropolis Museum is finally replaced by one that meets modern standards. Arrangements could then be made to continue long-term displays of the reunited marbles at each venue — the British Museum in London and the new museum in Athens.

In the meantime, the British Museum could certainly use the increased drawing power that would be generated by a display of the entire set of marbles. With its attendance down and its finances in disarray, the museum has suffered staff cuts and was recently rebuffed by the British government in its urgent appeal for a substantially larger subsidy. A Parthenon frieze reassembled in time for the museum’s 250th anniversary in 2003 would draw hordes of visitors to a celebratory reunion.

If ever there were a case for putting the integrity of an artwork above ownership interests, this is it.

Lee Rosenbaum is a contributing editor of Art in America magazine.

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