January 20, 2004

Can Greece be trusted with the Marbles?

Posted at 1:52 pm in Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited

The recent launch of the Marbles Reunited campaign & the flood of editorial pieces following it has stirred up controversy in the letters pages of many newspapers.

The Times

January 20, 2004
Who owns the Elgin Marbles?

The present Lord Elgin says that Greece cannot be trusted to look after the Marbles. Should we keep them?
THE question conjures up Lord Elgin, from an era of privileged appropriation, versus the Greek nation, natural guardians of aboriginal Western civilisation, in unseemly dispute over the toy cupboard: no surprise that polls indicate popular support for sending back the sculptures. Yet, of course, it’s not that simple. Both sides claim moral and legal priority (hardly surprising, given the ill-recorded and disputatious circumstances of what occurred in Athens two centuries ago). Yet history does not help. We should instead be asking ourselves, what do we really care about now?

Who cares about ancient art or archaeology? Not, apparently, the Greek Government, for whom it is more important to build an empty museum to house the sculptures than it is to recover evidence that could have furthered understanding of the people who created the Parthenon, which was destroyed when the museum was built.

Nor British campaigners calling for the return of the marbles, who seem unconcerned by the damage to the site of the battle of Marathon caused when — the irony! — the new Olympic rowing centre was laid out.

Nor anyone who would move the sculptures from an international and multicultural context in the British Museum to their nationalistic fate in Greece, giving in to museological blackmail.

What matters now is that we understand the art, the buildings and the people behind them; that we preserve all that we have, and save or properly record the unexcavated storehouse that still survives; and that we allow the highest number of people to see and enjoy these wonderful things. When we can say honestly that we have done all that, then perhaps we will be entitled to ask the other question. If it still matters.

Mike Pitts,
British Archaeology magazine

Crowbars and saws

YOUR two articles on the Parthenon Marbles (January 15) imply that the 7th Earl of Elgin deprived the temple of its sculptured frieze in order to save them from desecration and pollution. It was in fact Elgin who desecrated the temple by pulling the metopes apart to facilitate his theft. Then crowbars, winches and saws were used to enable the sculptures to be lowered from the temple and shipped to England. This was witnessed by Lord Byron and the artist Edward Dodwell, who were both outraged. The destructive acts were also detailed in Elgin’s correspondence with his henchmen.

To claim that the Greeks are unable to look after the Marbles is insulting. They have made huge efforts with the latest in marble-preservation technology on what is left of the temples, and construction is going ahead of a superbly designed new Acropolis Museum. Lord Elgin knew nothing about pollution at the time, and the present Earl seems to have got it wrong too. In 1937-38 the British Museum scrubbed the marbles with acid and wire brushes: overzealous cleaning that did irreparable damage. This scarcely improves the museum’s case for being their best protector.

Professor Christopher Miles,
Calne, Wiltshire

Special case

AS A Greek, I feel very offended to be told that only the British know how to look after the Parthenon Marbles and the Greeks will only destroy them.

How can one say that these Marbles were legally brought to Britain? If a country is under occupation, as Greece was, does it mean that it is acceptable to buy or remove anything from that country?

I would like to see the reaction of those who defend this action if their houses were burgled and their property sold. Lord Elgin was nothing but a thief, exploiting the situation of his time to acquire something which he was not entitled to, even if he paid for it. The British Museum has thousands of pieces from Greece. We want the Marbles because they are a special part of our heritage.

Kyris Pilavakis,

Record of neglect

CAMPAIGNERS say that Elgin’s purchase of the marbles was illegal because he did not have the consent of the Greek people, and because they were not the property of the Ottoman Sultan, who sold them. But this is a completely anachronistic way of looking at history. Who were the Greek people at this time? There was no Greek State in 1801 and never had been one. There were more people who considered themselves Greek living outside what we now recognise as the territory of the Greek State than within it. Should their consent have been sought?

Greece suffers from a peculiarly narrow chauvinism, in the cultural as in other domains. It prizes exclusively that part of Greek history which precedes the death of Alexander the Great. The Byzantine and, especially, post-Byzantine periods are largely ignored and their monuments neglected. Numberless early-medieval chapels in Crete and the Mani languish in varying states of decay and neglect; even the main Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki have been devalued as they have been overshadowed by apartment blocks. Mount Athos itself has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair.

Practically every provincial town in the country has been architecturally desecrated and no one knows how many interesting remains have been lost through the activities of property speculators. There are churches and monasteries throughout the Pindos mountains which have scarcely even been catalogued. Their frescoed walls and painted ceilings have been ruined by damp and repaired any old how with raw cement while flagged floors have been concreted over.

Even now the Greek Government is proceeding with a hydroelectric scheme in the valley of the Acheloos River, which is destroying one of the finest stretches of wilderness in the country as well as mediaeval monuments — this in spite of two rulings by its own Supreme Court as well as protection under EU and worldwide environment agreements.

Tim Salmon,

New efforts in Athens

THE argument that Greece is incapable of looking after the Elgin Marbles has had its day. While this may once have been true, anybody who has visited Athens lately can see for themselves the massive infrastructure projects under way to clean up the environment and to showcase the city’s rich history. New buses, metro lines and tram routes are being built to get cars away from the city centre. A people-friendly and car-free archaeological walk has been laid down to connect, for the first time, the Acropolis, the Theatre of Herodeus Atticus, the Pnyx, the Temple of Theseus and the ancient Agora.

The National Museum, once woefully dusty and dingy, is being given a total facelift to bring Greece’s cultural heritage back to life. The new Acropolis Museum is being built using 21st-century technology and preservation methods. Athens will sparkle once again. Now is the right time to return the Elgin Marbles.

Alex Lauder,

Threat to museum heritage

THERE is nothing unique about the status of the Elgin Marbles. If we give in to Greek pressure and transfer them to Athens, how will we justify resisting pressure to return every other work of art to its country of origin? Or is this what Marbles Reunited really wants — the destruction of all our leading museums and galleries? The Elgin Marbles were acquired entirely legimately. There is no benefit to the world in moving them.

George Owen,

What about the others?

THERE are three points to consider. First, would the marbles be restored to the Parthenon? Unfortunately, no. They would merely be moved from one museum to another.

Second, such a return would require an Act of Parliament. Successive governments have refused to introduce such legislation. Any Private Members’ Bill is unlikely to succeed, as the last attempt in 2002 demonstrated.

Third, the Parthenon Marbles are not just in Athens and London, but in nine locations in six countries. Any campaign for their return should apply not just to the British Museum, but to all the museums concerned.

While I accept the emotional case for returning the Marbles to Athens, it is unlikely to happen unless and until these serious points are addressed.

David Atkinson,
MP, London SW1

Institutional greed

I FIND Lord Elgin’s comments about the Parthenon Marbles (as they should be known) quite ridiculous; they are indicative of his and the British Museum’s pompous attitude regarding their return home to Athens.

Successive Greek governments have invested a great deal of time, effort and money in trying to get the Marbles returned to their rightful place. They feel very passionately about something that relates to their culture. The Marbles still in Athens have been well looked after in recent years, and the new Acropolis Museum will ensure that the Marbles now in London will be beautifully preserved, should the British Museum ever bow to popular pressure and send them back.

The British claim to have legally acquired them from the ruling Turkish authorities in the 19th century. Since when have the Turks the right to dispose of someone else’s culture? Their action can only be considered a crime. Lord Elgin was just as culpable: he was no different from a modern-day art thief.

The argument will not go away. Why can’t the British act in a responsible and sensitive manner and return the Marbles to their owners?

A. Tsangari,
London N22

Nine points of the law

HOW absurd that Robin Cook proposes handing the Marbles over to help London’s Olympic bid. I’d have thought that spending some government money on decent transport links just might be more effective, but logical thinking is entirely absent from Mr Cook’s preposterous argument.

Perhaps he hopes for a job presiding over a government commission to hand over the contents of all our galleries, museums and stately homes to their countries of origin. It makes no sense to single out the Marbles for special treatment.

Stand firm, trustees of the British Museum, in the face of this bullying rant. Can you imagine anyone asking the trustees of the Louvre to hand over their Greek artifacts, and being egged on by French politicians? No, neither can I.

Eileen Cox,
London N10

What I saw

THE last of the pedimental sculpture had to be removed from the Parthenon because of pollution in 1977, and now has to be keep in a nitrogen-filled box as it is in such poor condition. Despite this, much of the frieze remained in situ until 1993, and some of the frieze, along with a few of the metopes, remain on the building to this day, being eaten away by acid rain and smog. The west frieze, removed over ten years ago, is still awaiting conservation, and is not displayed in the museum.

I am one of the few who have seen the west frieze since it was removed from the Parthenon, and not only is it in appalling condition, but it is continuing to disintegrate without proper conservation.

Dr Dorothy King,
(author of The Elgin Marbles),
London SW7

Elgin the saviour

THE Acropolis is shrouded in scaffolding, the Temple of Nike has been removed for reconstruction and half the Propylaea is likewise disassembled. The place is a mess. The Acropolis Museum itself is well lit and well arranged, but the Parthenon Marbles that survive in Athens are less well displayed than other material. Their condition is infinitely inferior to those Marbles brought to Britain by Lord Elgin. They have suffered from two centuries more weathering and above all from the appalling pollution.

It is immediately apparent why the Greeks want the Marbles returned: those they have give little clue to the beauty and perfection of the sections of the Parthenon frieze now in the care of the British Museum and other museums such as the Louvre. That the Greeks know this is clear from the fact that the casts of the caryatids which support the Erectheum were made from the single example in Lord Elgin’s collection which is in far better condition than those still in Greece. That Lord Elgin was not so much a vandal but rather a saviour of the Marbles should be acknowledged.

The compromise already made by the Greeks with the Louvre to have plaster casts made is a sensible one. Quality casts could be made from the Parthenon frieze and presented to the Greeks.

David Scrase,

Here’s hoping

IF WE return the Elgin Marbles to Greece we will open the door to claims from other countries. Egypt will want its mummies back, Scotland will want its yard, and Australia will want Rolf Harris.

Eamonn O’Gorman,

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