June 25, 2009

The Economist on the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 9:13 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

This week’s Economist has two articles about the Parthenon Marbles. The previous week they featured an archive article from 1983 on the same subject.


Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles
Snatched from northern climes
Jun 25th 2009

Greek demands to get back the Elgin marbles risk stopping a better idea: museums lending their treasures

THERE is much to be said for moral clarity. Greece is insisting that the British Museum surrender the marble sculptures that Lord Elgin took down from the Parthenon and carted away in the early 1800s. Anything less, it says, would “condone the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” The Greek demand for ownership will arouse widespread sympathy, even among those who accept the British Museum’s claim to the marbles. With the opening of an impressive new museum in Athens (see article), the sculptures from the Parthenon now have good cause to be reunited, if only for artistic reasons.

But sometimes clarity is self-defeating. A previous Greek administration was willing to finesse the question of ownership and co-operate with the British Museum over a joint display of the marbles. By hardening its position, the Greek government risks driving museums everywhere into clinging to their possessions for fear of losing them. If the aim is for the greatest number of people to see the greatest number of treasures, a better way must be found.

As curators all over the world will see it, those who call for the permanent return of the Parthenon sculptures from London are arguing for international museums to be emptied. Many other collections have a more dubious provenance than the marbles—think of the British Museum’s Benin bronzes, seized in a punitive raid in Nigeria; of the Pergamon altar removed from Turkey and now in Berlin; of Chinese treasures carried off during the Boxer rebellion and again during the civil war; of hundreds of works in Russian museums that were snatched from their owners in the Bolshevik revolution.

You cannot go very far in righting those wrongs without entangling the world’s museums in a Gordian knot of restitution claims. That is why, in December 2002, 18 of the world’s leading directors—from the Louvre to the Hermitage and from the Metropolitan Museum to the Getty Museum—argued for a quid pro quo. The Munich declaration, as it is called, asserts that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.

This has led to a new level of co-operation between museums over training, curating, restoration and loans. Thousands of works are now lent each year between museums on every continent. Who thought that China’s Palace Museum and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan would hold a joint show in Taipei, as they plan to in October, reuniting Qing-dynasty works that have been separated ever since they were borne away from Beijing by the retreating Nationalist forces in 1948? The British Museum was not party to the Munich declaration, but it seems to embrace its spirit. During the Olympic games in China in 2008 it sent the Discobolus, the discus-thrower of Myron, to Shanghai where 5,000 people queued each day to see it. It will soon lend the Rosetta stone, the cornerstone of written language, to Egypt for the opening of the Giza museum. On the day the new Acropolis Museum was opened, the British Museum’s director was in Riyadh, to arrange loans for an exhibition on the haj in London in 2011.

Beware of Greeks causing rifts

The choice is between the free circulation of treasures and a stand-off in which each museum grimly clings to what it claims to own. Instead of grandstanding, the Greek culture minister should call the British Museum’s bluff and ask for a loan. The nervous British would then have to test the waters by, say, sending to Athens a single piece of the Parthenon frieze. If that piece were to be seized, then so be it. But if on the due date, the Greeks surprised everybody and returned the sculpture, then the lending programme would surely be expanded. By taking small steps, the Greeks may yet encourage the British to make the big leap.


New Acropolis Museum opens
Jun 25th 2009 | ATHENS
A new tribute to the Parthenon

AS GREECE’S first Socialist culture minister in 1981, the late Melina Mercouri, a flamboyant actress best known for playing a golden-hearted prostitute in a film called “Never on Sunday”, decided to make her mark in politics by campaigning for the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum (BM) (see article).

Mercouri’s pleas to officials in London were ignored, but she scored two successes. First, the fifth-century-BC sculptures that Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, removed from the Acropolis temples in 1801-05 and later sold to the BM have become more widely known as the Parthenon marbles—the name chosen by Mercouri to highlight where they came from. More important, her campaign added fuel to an international debate over who owns cultural property, whether ancient Greek or ethnic African, that has burned ever since.

On June 21st a new museum opened in Athens to display the Parthenon sculptures and other finds from the Acropolis hill, fulfilling Mercouri’s promise that Greece would one day build a suitable home for the Parthenon frieze and other exiled masterpieces of classical art. At the opening ceremony—attended by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, the UN agency for cultural heritage—Antonis Samaras, the current Greek culture minister, made a point of condemning the 19th-century “looting” of treasures from the Acropolis. Also present were representatives of committees in 17 countries that campaign for the marbles’ return, as well as the deputy chairman of the BM’s board of trustees.

The €130m ($180.5m) new Acropolis Museum, a stack of glass-and-concrete boxes designed by Bernard Tschumi, a Swiss-born architect based in New York, together with Michael Photiadis, his Greek associate, is uncompromisingly modern. Its glittering bulk, squeezed into a narrow plot beneath the Acropolis hill, contrasts sharply with shabby blocks of flats nearby and the pale-coloured rocky slope. Some Athenians complain it is simply too big for the site. Yet both Greek and foreign visitors seem delighted by the museum’s spacious, daylight-filled interior.

In the first-floor gallery, free-standing marble statues of men, women and horses glow against a background of grey concrete walls and columns. Floor-to-ceiling windows are made of thick crystalline glass embedded with mineral particles to cut out glare. Mr Tschumi says, “The marble reflects light, but the concrete absorbs it…the use of daylight is fundamental to this museum.”

Glass floor-panels in connecting spaces illuminate an excavation in the basement of the museum (soon to be opened to visitors) of houses and streets in an Athens neighbourhood dating from early Christian times.

The caryatids, five larger-than-life-size female statues that supported a porch on the Erechtheum temple on the Acropolis, survey the museum’s lobby from an internal balcony. An empty space has been left for the sixth, which is in London.

Mr Tschumi’s showpiece is the top-floor Parthenon gallery, a cool glass box with a spectacular view that mirrors the dimensions and orientation of the temple itself. Below, projected on the wall, is a digitised video animation of elegant korai statues (pictured above).

The frieze, a mix of honey-coloured marble panels and glaring white plaster casts of pieces in the BM, shows a procession of worshippers carrying offerings to Athena, the temple goddess. It is mounted at eye level on a grey concrete wall, an arresting display that could almost be an installation in a contemporary art show.

Dimitrios Pandermalis, the museum’s director, says, “We thought about leaving gaps for pieces that are in London, but we eventually decided that the casts would give continuity while making it quite clear how the frieze has been divided.”

By comparison with Athens, the BM’s display, which amounts to half the remaining frieze, and which was improved in 1998, now looks a little tired. Alexandros Mantis, a Greek expert on the ancient Acropolis temples, also points out that the frieze, which ran around the exterior of the Parthenon, is arranged in London around the interior of a gallery, which is architecturally and aesthetically wrong.

For the Greeks, criticised in the past for not having a suitable place to display the Acropolis sculptures, the inauguration of the new museum is the strongest possible argument for repatriating the marbles.

Moreover, it fulfils a widespread belief that architectural sculpture should be displayed as close as possible to the building it once decorated. Atmospheric pollution rules out placing the sculptures back on the temple itself. But the Parthenon gallery in the new museum is 300 metres and a single glance away from the temple.

However, Neil MacGregor, the BM director, is as passionate (and as eloquent) about keeping the marbles in London as the Greeks are about getting them back. Mr MacGregor argues that they have belonged to a unique collection for more than 200 years, in a museum that attracts more visitors than any other in the world, rather than just to one nation’s history.

An eventual solution—though probably not one that will happen on Mr MacGregor’s watch—would be to send the marbles back to Athens on loan and accept the Greek offer to provide a series of temporary exhibitions of classical art to fill the gallery. But that would require the Greeks to recognise British ownership of the sculptures in London, something Mr Samaras says would be “impossible”.

With mutual prickliness running high, the stand-off looks set to continue. In the meantime, though, Athenians and their visitors can be proud of their stunning new piece of architecture, filled with indisputably great art.

Note the date of the next article – it is one selected from the archives, not a current piece.


From the archive
Sorry, Melina
May 28th 1983

The Elgin marbles should stay put—or at least find their true price

Despite the efforts of the Greek minister of culture, Miss Melina Mercouri, the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens has mercifully not become a British election issue. The marbles are not going back and it is hard to conceive of any circumstance in which they ought to—least of all in response to the garbled nationalism of Miss Mercouri.

To be sure, the removal of the frieze, metopes and pediment figures from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801 was sufficiently questionable to allow all parties to claim justice on their side. To be sure, too, Greece has suffered more than most in seeing some of its greatest works of art—especially classical sculpture—filling foreign museums. The best that can be said is that these marbles were acquired more honestly than half the possessions of the world’s great museums, looted or smuggled by conquerors and crooks down the ages.

The argument stops there. Miss Mercouri says that the marbles are an integral part of the Parthenon and that she wishes to restore the “unity of a unique monument”. But she wishes no such thing. She wants to put them in a special museum below the Acropolis so that the pollution which her government has yet to stop eating into the rest of her unique monument does not destroy them too. On present form, this museum would be shut much of the time, along with the many other Greek sites and museums that Miss Mercouri has been closing for long periods to the visiting public.

The marbles are hardly integral to the architecture of the Acropolis. In situ only the pediment figures, garishly painted, were clearly visible from the ground. There is a case for replacing them, albeit in pollution-resistant cast form. If Miss Mercouri were serious about architectural unity, she would propose this at once. She would also request the return of Parthenon marbles in other museums—not to mention the Winged Victory of Samothrace for whose reinstatement there is a “scenic” argument. But that is in the Louvre, and Miss Mercouri has personal links with Socialist France.

No British government should ever say never to the international flow of works of art—a flow from which Britain has benefited greatly. Museums should be able to sell as well as buy. The possessiveness of many governments, and many great museums (Britain’s included), is no more edifying a cultural chauvinism than that shown by Miss Mercouri. The British Museum need not be prevented by statute from selling some of its ludicrously vast collection. All works of art have their price and the Elgin marbles should, as Lord Elgin appreciated, be permitted to find theirs. If Miss Mercouri wants to enrich her new museum she should place her bids: then Britain can have a real debate about her marbles.

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1 Comment »

  1. DR. KWAME OPOKU said,

    06.29.09 at 6:25 pm

    Comments on “Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles Snatched from northern climes”.
    Why is it that when it comes to restitution of looted artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances even respectable persons and papers cannot keep to facts or logic. The opinion above is really surprising.
    The title of the article under discussion is as untrue as it is self-serving: “Greek demands to get back the Elgin marbles risk stopping a better idea: museums lending their treasures”.
    There is no evidence that the demand by Greece would stop or slow co-operation between museums or the restitution of cultural objects. Internet columns such as Looting Matters http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/ provide information on the various restitutions to Greece, Italy, Egypt and Ethiopia in the last few months. The article states that “A previous Greek administration was willing to finesse the question of ownership and co-operate with the British Museum over a joint display of the marbles.” Why are we not told what happened then? Did the British accept the Greek offer?
    The author reaises again the old groundless argument that restitution to Greece would set a precedent and cause others, including the Nigerians to demand restitution. Are the big museums made up only of stolen/looted artefacts or objects of doubtful acquisition? Anytime one asks for the return of an unjustifiably taken object, we are told that if it were returned all the others will claim their looted property. Is this a valid argument? Can one legally or morally advance the argument that because one has wrongfully taken objects from many other persons, nobody should have their property back because the illegal holder would have nothing else in his possession?
    It is also remarkable that once a claim is made with respect to a specific object, the holders broaden the argument to cover all objects. If you ask for the return of the Benin Bronzes, you are told that cannot be done because there would then be a claim for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. If you ask for the return of a Nazi-looted object hanging in the British Museum, you are told that cannot be done because then there will follow a claim for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Thus the different histories of the acquisition of the various contested objects in the British Museum are mixed. Can one injustice be used to defend another injustice?

    The author resurrects again the discredited Universal Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museum of (2002) which has now been abandoned in practice by its signatories. True the British Museum did not sign but it was the promoter of the idea. The Declaration was intended to stave off Greek political pressure for the return of the Parthenon/Elgin Marble. The article creates the impression that China and Taiwan are cooperating on the basis of the discredited agreement which in fact was signed mainly by Western museums: “Who thought that China’s Palace Museum and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan would hold a joint show in Taipei, as they plan to in October, reuniting Qing-dynasty works that have been separated ever since they were borne away from Beijing by the retreating Nationalist forces in 1948?”

    The article warning us about the Greeks is extremely misleading and the Economist should not support such efforts.

    Kwame Opoku

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