June 19, 2009

Pressure mounts for the return of the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 1:26 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The British Museum insists that their ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures is entirely legal. This focus on legality though avoids considering what is the right, moral or ethical thing to do.

Athens News

Pressure mounts for Marbles’ return
ATHENS NEWS 18/06/2009
Helen Skopis
Issue No. 13342

By now the arguments have been thoroughly aired. The British Museum remains steadfast and insists all was done fair and square even though numerous authorities have made compelling arguments to the contrary.

But despite almost 200 years having passed, the issue will not die, and now with the imminent opening of the New Acropolis Museum, the chorus of those demanding the return to Greece of the infamous Elgin Marbles is bound to grow only louder.

Set to open on June 20, the New Acropolis Museum will contain more than 4,000 ancient works in 20,000m2 of display space. The highlight will be the museum’s top floor, a glass hall aligned with the actual Parthenon. Here, the temple’s frieze will be displayed, the Parthenon within sight only 400m away, the sun striking the tablets as it first did more than two millennia ago.

With its opening, the new museum becomes the centrepiece of Greece’s campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum in London.

Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has said the museum’s display – highlighting as it will the absence of about half of the surviving sculptures – would turn public opinion in Greece’s favour.

The British Museum has repeatedly refused to return the 2,500-year-old sculptures, which formed part of the temple’s ornamentation until British diplomat Lord Elgin removed them at the beginning of the 19th century. At the time, Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.

Overly optimistic?

Is Greece being overly optimistic in believing the marbles will ever be housed in the New Acropolis Museum?

British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton has said that, as it stands, there are no circumstances under which permanent transfer could be considered.

“The trustees have for years been looking to see whether there is any reasonable ground on which a way forward could be constructed but they can’t contemplate a removal of all the Parthenon sculptures to Athens even for a short period of time,” Boulton said recently.

“We consider the acquisition to have been entirely legal,” she adds. “We do obviously have the copy of the firman [an Ottoman decree] – it’s here in the museum’s collection.”

However, the Greek state and numerous academics have called the British Museum’s ownership into question.

Vassilis Dimitriadis, professor emeritus of Turkish studies at the University of Crete, says the document isn’t a firman.

“[It] is signed by its author, the deputy grand vizier, during the absence of the grand vizier in Egypt. By Ottoman law, a firman bearing the monogram of the sultan is never signed by anyone else,” Dimitriadis says.

The president of the Islamic University at Rotterdam and an expert on the Ottoman legal system, Ahmed Akgunduz, also says the document is not a firman because it lacks the sultan’s emblem – a tugras – and signature.

Author William St Clair, who sold the document to the British Museum two years ago, believes the point today is not whether the document is legal, but what we should do now.

‘Dubious legality’

“Even if it conferred legality, it was a very dubious form of legality because it was accompanied by absolutely massive bribes and threats in both Istanbul and Athens,” St Clair says.

There are those, including professor Anthony Snodgrass, chairman of the British committee for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, who believe the British government in 1816 may have been acquiring stolen goods.

“If I were the British Museum I’d keep quiet about the document because it exposes how threadbare Lord Elgin’s title was to take the marbles into his possession,” Snodgrass says.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation has said the Acropolis is a symbol of world heritage. Organised by Unesco, an international conference on the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin was held in Athens last year. Certain categories of cultural property are irrevocably identified by reference to the cultural context in which they were created, delegates concluded. It is their original context that gives them their authenticity and unique value.

Maria-Ekaterini Papachristopoulou-Tzitzikosta, president of the Hellenic national commission for Unesco, maintains that the Parthenon marbles fall under this category.

“A monument is unique,” she says, “and you cannot separate it because it presents and represents a period of time and a period of art.”

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