August 25, 2009

Should Greece be thanking the British Museum?

Posted at 12:42 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

This article suggests that maybe the British Museum is waiting for the Greeks to thank them before they will then return the Elgin Marbles. I have to say that I very much doubt that all should be required. Furthermore, surely the British Museum should be thanking Greece for the loan of these artefacts for so many years?

Vancouver Sun

Has the British Museum lost its marbles?
By Andre Gerolymatos, Special to the Sun
August 17, 2009

For two centuries, Greek governments have been at loggerheads with the British Museum over the ownership of the so-called Elgin Marbles. These ancient sculptures are an integral part of the Parthenon that crowns the Acropolis in the centre of Athens and Greeks have argued that the British should reunite them to their original place. The Greek case rests on the simple fact that the marbles are Greek property and that they had been illegally removed from the Parthenon and shipped to the British Museum.

The British position is more complicated. The British Museum officials have argued that the marbles were safer in London than in Athens anyway; the Greeks could not restore the marbles onto the Parthenon, as the pollution in Athens would destroy the antiquities eventually. Now that the Greeks have constructed a state-of-the-art museum at the foot of the Acropolis (designed to house the marbles) the British position has shifted and claims that the marbles belong to the world accusing the Greek government of falling victim to shrill nationalism. This is not the position of the Salinas Museum in Palermo that decided to return their slab of the Parthenon Frieze, which they held for more than two hundred years. German and Swedish museums have also followed the example of the Italians and have used the occasion of the new Acropolis Museum to return parts of the Parthenon frieze.

At first glance, the position of the marbles seems to be a simple story of possession versus ownership. However the ultimate fate of the marbles and how they got to the British Museum will have a significant impact on the disposition of other works of art and to whom they belong.

The story of the marbles begins in the early 1800s in Ottoman-occupied Athens. Although, in 1821, the Greek War of Independence ended Ottoman rule, during the first decade of the 19th century, agents of Lord Thomas Elgin (British Ambassador to Constantinople 1799-1803) removed from the Acropolis a large number of antiquities dating to the classical period of ancient Athens and sold them to the British Museum. The pride of this loot was most of the sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon, a temple originally dedicated to the goddess Athena, which stands on the Acropolis hill in the centre of the ancient city.

Lord Elgin’s actions were more than likely illegal and it is doubtful if the Ottoman administration had even given permission for the removal of the antiquities.

Undoubtedly, Elgin, although his motives were triggered by plunder and to quote Byron “His mind is as barren as his heart is hard” he may have saved some of the marbles but at the same time his agents also caused considerable damage from the way they removed the sculptures. Perhaps, they are waiting for the Greek government to say thank you — so be it, if that is what it takes to restore the marbles to their home.

André Gerolymatos is a Greek-Canadian professor at Simon Fraser University.

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