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Dorothy King’s book on the Elgin Marbles

Selby Whittingham, a former curator at the Manchester Gallery and an art historian writes in an email (published here with his permission) about the many inaccuracies & misunderstandings in Dorothy King’s book The Elgin Marbles [1].

Selby Whittingham [2]

Dorothy King mounts a defence of the retention of the Marbles in her book (Hutchinson 2006). Her strongest argument is that their conservation is better assured in Britain than in Greece, but she concedes that may change.

A key argument of the British Museum she dismisses. “…the emphasis put on the concept of the universal museum suggests that great works cannot be appreciated on their own, but rather need to be put in a historical, chronological context. This supposes that, say, the frescoes in Saint Marco in Florence cannot be appreciated as well in the monastery for which they were created as they could be in a myseum stuck between French, Flemish and Impressionsit paintings, that Notre Dame in Paris cannot be appreciated on its own, needing a ‘context’ created artificially by surrounding it with items from different civilisations.”

The tate has used the same argument as has the bm with regard to the turner bequest, equally unconvincingly. It is a theoretical argument which fails to stand up in practice, as king notes. A frequent visitor to the bm, I have always viewed the different parts in isolation, any related works being in another museum rather than the bm. The bm (in recognition of this?) began to disintegrate nearly 200 years ago when the national gallery was hived off. (A fact overlooked when the recent comparison was made between its purchase grant and that of the louvre).

I would put the argument more positively, and say that there is an advantage in seeing works in their correct physical environment, something King denies. It is more enjoyable to view the sculptures that have been taken down from Reims Cathedral in an adjacent museum than if they were moved to some part of the Louvre. I feel similarly about the Marbles.

In the case of the Turner Bequest the matter is more complicated, as the right environment has to be thought up, though Turner offered some clues. The Early Day motions moved by Austin Mitchell MP and inspired by the Overturners do not question the context of the two pictures which Turner gave to hang with two Claudes at the National Gallery, but the gallery’s failure to get over the political allusions which Turner had in mind. The NG has adhered to the letter of Turner’s will, but ignored the spirit. (With regard to his bequest of Turner’s Gallery it has blithely done the opposite!). Turner surely also intended the two pictures also and maybe primarily to illustrate his mastery in the two great schools of landscape – the Franco- Italian and the Dutch. This would have been evident as the NG was originally arranged, but is quite lost in the present arrangement.

King devotes most of her remarks to attacking the views of the Restitutionists such as their pleas for a permanent ‘loan’ of the Marbles. “…the Greek government is not asking for a loan in the normal sense of the word, meaning that it would borrow the sculptures for a few years and then return them.” Implied is the view that this is a typical piece of Greek trickery, but, if so, it is one learnt from the British government which pretended that the transfer of most of the Turner Bequest to the Tate was only a ‘loan’ when it was intended to be a permanent transfer.

She also dismisses the Greek protestation that they would not ask for any other works back if they got the Marbles as another untrustworthy ploy. So what, if they did ask? The demand would be discredited. More importantly the old imperial European nations have no intention of returning all their foreign works of art, and nothing, apart from conquest, can compel their return. She declares that we either decide we believe in the concept of the universal museum …or their contents are returned to their countries of origin. But we have seen that the BM has already parted with whole departments. The 18th c aim of a universal museum cannot be realised today, when branches of knowledge have multiplied. If the BM sheds a few more works, it will surely remain basically as it is now, as will the Louvre and Met. (That is not to deny that the division of oriental and mediaeval art between the BM and V&A is illogical and detrimental).

Moreover there is no demand for the return of everything (King shows how difficult it was for the USA to get the native Red Indians to accept the return of their works). The restitution question has arisen only because of a few persistent demands. The demands of Jews dispossessed by the Nazis King allows to be valid, but it is not easy to see why every other claim should be excluded.

King argues for a time limit on claims. But national grievances (to which such national restitution claims are closely allied) know few limits and may stretch back centuries. In truth there is no easy answer, any more than there is over similar disputes over land (Ireland, Middle East etc). Christopher Price is surely right in arguing that what is needed is negotiation and compromise. The Retententionists’ claim – that one returns everything or nothing – may sound good to theoretical minds (just like the argument from the superiority of the universal museum) but in practice are unconvincing. In fact the British government has never followed consistent principles, as the contradictory arguments it has used over the Turner and Lane bequests demonstrate. The compromise over the Lane Bequest, involving temporary loans, would be unacceptable to such as King who maintain that a hard line has to be maintained against any national claims for artworks.

A hoary argument of the BM is that it is not empowered to return the Marbles. This is stating the obvious and an irrelevance. The BM does not own them, but holds them in trust. The owner is Britain and the matter is one for Parliament. This begs the question of how well equipped Parliament is to decide the matter or indeed other similar ones. History suggests that it is poorly, and that the creation of a Culture Select Committee has not helped matters greatly. This may suit the BM now, but one can imagine an eventuality with a populist Commons and enfeebled Lords which might suddenly pass a bill enabling restitution in an emotional spasm.

King says that the Marbles “belong to the whole of humanity.” This merely confuses the issue. Maybe all humanity have a moral right of access, but it cannot be responsible for their care, which must devolve on a particular body. The BM has been delegated by the legal owner, Britain, to carry that out. (King assumes that legal ownership passed from the Ottomans to Elgin and then to Britain, failing to mention that the legality of Elgin’s acquisition has been questioned by lawyers). Britain would remain the legal owner if the Marbles were loaned to Greece, though it might be questionable how far the rights of ownership can be enforced in a foreign country, which can nationalise assets (though King points out that it would need to pay for them, if British title to ownership had been accepted). Other museums are creating distant outposts both in their own countries, but also abroad, and the tendency is for lending to be extended further and further both as gestures of international goodwill and for reciprocal benefits. Whether this is a beneficial trend can be questioned (it is challenged by Didier Rykner of La tribune de l’art).

King complains that the debate has until recently been one-sided. But anyone following it over the last 40 or 50 years will be familiar with the main arguments deployed for retention. It is remarkable how fully the issue of the Marbles has been debated. Whereas the case of the Turner Bequest has had no proper debate since 1861 or in the columns of The Times a century ago. Remarkably too the case for return of the Marbles has been championed as much by Britons as by Greeks. It has not all been got up by Merlina Mercouri.

While the central debate has grown rather repetitive, the context would bear further consideration. The question of acquisitions outstripping the provision of space for them, engendering a new willingness to consider deaccessioning, is relevant.

So too is the current clash of cultures – notably between the West and Islam. It is worth noting that there is no demand to return all Islamic art; indeed some followers of Islam have for some time been trying to establish a museum of Islamic art in London.

King points out that Israel has not always respected Christian monuments and Greece has not generally respected Moslem and other ones. “The Greeks of the nineteenth century, heavily influenced by the Germans, wanted to create a ‘pure’ Acropolis, one that was classical Greek and untainted by succeeding generations and cultures.” Here was a context different from the textbook sort favoured by the museums. The question arises of which sort of context is more valuable.

Some admirers of classical culture regard it as superior not only to the Muslim one, but also to the Christian one, of which there have been notable monuments in Greece. So that the conflict is not only a national one, but also a cultural one.

The two have come together in the long hostility between Greece and Turkey. Turkey was secularised by Kemal Ataturk, but the Christian population in Istanbul has continued to decline, as it is also doing in the Middle East generally, due to hostility from the host states. This hostility cannot be excused simply as a natural reaction to hostility from the West.

Hagia Sophia is now a museum, significant only as the architectural prototype of the mosques of Istanbul. Its cultural value is greatly diminished by its no longer being a church. No doubt it suits many in the West as well as the Middle East that it remain simply a museum, but should realpolitik alone hold sway? Here is something on which that notable Christian, the director of the BM, might be expected to speak up. It is an issue difficult to divorce wholely from that of the Marbles.

King’s discussion points to the need of a discussion of the wider context and implications. Can general rules for the ownership of cultural property be formulated and agreed? It is a chimera to suppose that they exist today even within Britain.

Selby Whittingham