September 18, 2008

Two hundred year struggle over the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 12:52 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum, Similar cases

Developments such as the New Acropolis Museum mean that the Elgin Marbles may be closer to returning than they once were, but they are still a long way from Greece.

Balkan Travellers

Ancient Greece’s Elgin Marbles Stand at the Centre of a 200-Year Long Great Ado
Text by Ekaterina Petrova

During his term as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, already knew his actions were controversial and that he might go down in history as a “vandal.” But he most likely did not anticipate that, 200 years on, the heated international dispute he caused would continue to rage with full force.

Almost two centuries after the British diplomat controversially acquired and brought to Britain precious pieces of the Acropolis in Athens, the British Museum still refused to return them to Greece. The Elgin Marbles have in the past couple of decades become emblematic for disputes over the ownership of cultural heritage objects between wealthier countries and nations that boast ancient sites on their territory.

As British ambassador and an antiques enthusiast, Elgin obtained an ambiguous permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Acropolis in Athens, then under the Ottoman Empire’s rule. According to some accounts, the Earl was also motivated by a desire to preserve the statues from Ottoman neglect and damage.

Between 1801 and 1812, about half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures were removed – which damaged not only the Parthenon but also the marbles which had to be cut up in order to be transported to England by sea, at the Earl’s significant expense.

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, include more than half of the surviving decorative sculptures of the Parthenon and some objects from other Acropolis buildings, such as pediment figures, metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs and various friezes.

After a public debate in Britain– in which admiration for the statues was mixed with harsh criticism for Elgin (poet Lord Byron allegedly called him “a dishonest and rapacious vandal”), in 1816 the marbles were purchased by the government and displayed in London’s British Museum where they stand to this day.

Since World War II, subsequent Greek governments have questioned the statues’ ownership, repeatedly insisting for their return to Greece, although it looks like they will remain in Britain for the time being.

Among Britain’s arguments is that keeping them in London makes them part of a world heritage collection, available for the whole world to enjoy. Another point cited often is that the pollution in Athens could damage the marbles if they are returned.

In response to these assertions and in efforts to reclaim the marbles, Greece recently had the New Acropolis Museum built in close vicinity of the Parthenon in Athens. Designed by Swiss-French architect Bernard Tschumi and equipped with state-of-the-art technology for protection and preservation, the institution is intended to house the reunited Parthenon sculptures. Expected to officially open in late 2008 or early 2009, the museum will display plaster copies of the marbles owned by Britain, covered by a veil to make it clear that they are replicas.

The case with the classical Greek marbles, possessed and displayed by the British Museum, is not unique but it is emblematic. There is hardly a great museum in the Western world that does not boast in its collection objects dubiously acquired during colonialism – the Egyptian antiquities in the Louvre in Paris and the Greek and Roman ancient sculptures in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum are just two other examples.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable move towards the restitution of ancient objects to their countries of origin – in 2007, for example, Greece managed to reclaim from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles an ancient gold wreath it claimed was looted from its soil.

In an act of good faith and as part of its broader campaign against the illegal acquisition of antique objects, as reported in February, Greece returned to Albania two ancient marble statues of Artemis and Apollo, stolen in the early 1990s from the ancient city of Butrint, located in the southern part of present-day Albania.

And while, on the one hand, returning cultural heritage objects to the countries they came from seems fair, fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world’s great museum and scatter important artefacts, making them less accessible to the public at large.

Beside the two extreme options of either remaining property of the British Museum or being returned to Greece, other middle-ground alternatives may be feasible. One such alternative may be similar to the pre-World War II partage policy, in which wealthier institutions and countries financed archaeological work in poorer countries and then shared the finds with the host nations. For now, it remains to be seen how, if it all, the dispute over the Elgin Marbles will be settled.

In the meantime, you know where to find them!

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