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The controversy surrounding the Parthenon Marbles of the British Museum, taken from Greece between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, has been continuing for two hundred years and still generates much debate. Should the marbles be returned to their original location or should they stay at the British Museum, where they have been for nearly two hundred years now?
This dispute is so lively, and apparently never-ending, not only because of its nationalistic and economic implications, but also because it raises essential questions around the ownership of cultural heritage. Recently, the issue arose again on the news thanks to Greece’s choice to have its cause represented by the influential and popular Amal Alamuddin, or Mrs. Clooney, who publicly announced, “Injustice has persisted for too long.”
Made to adorn the temple of Athena, the Parthenon marbles played a pivotal role in the history of art and are part of those canonical objects that have been of primary inspiration for artists for millennia. Beside their inestimable artistic value, the pieces are now a symbol of those unrepatriated cultural properties finding themselves in a limbo, never entirely connected to the countries where they are located, nor to the place they are coming from.
Everyone seems to have a firm opinion on this issue, however it is necessary to remember that it is not so clear-cut and that both countries have valid reasons.
Why the marbles should stay in Britain
1. The marbles are displayed in a free entrance museum that has considerable funding for conservation
Open to the public seven days a week, the British Museum has no entrance fee and offers free tours and talks everyday. Moreover, it undeniably is one of the institutions with the most prepared teams of specialists and restorers. Governed by a board of 25 trustees, the museum owns more than eight million objects from all around the world, spanning over 2 million years of human history.
This institution focuses very much on its educational purpose and takes excellent care the objects it owns and displays. As a matter of fact, the marbles of the Parthenon located in London are, at the present, much better conserved than those in Athens, consumed by pollution.
2. The restitution of the Marbles would set a precedent
If Britain agreed the return of the marbles, it would set a considerable precedent on which many countries could rely on in the future. That’s great, you may think. But not so great if the bigger picture is considered. Most of the greatest museums of the world contain pieces more or less rightfully taken from other nations. First in order of importance would be the Louvre and the British Museum, loosing most of their artworks and artefacts if the countries of origin all decided to have them back. Cultural masterpieces should be seen as belonging to the world and not to a single nation.
3. By moving them to Britain, Lord Elgin saved the marbles from destruction
At the beginning of the 19th century, the 7th Earl of Elgin sent two trusted people to the Athenian Acropolis in order to make casts and drawings of Greek masterpieces. The rest of the story is unclear, but the result was the arrival of nearly half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon in Britain. The intentions of Lord Elgin were most probably good as the Parthenon, in the hands of the Ottomans, had already been extensively damaged and was utterly neglected. In 1687, for example, a Turkish powder magazine in the temple exploded after a direct hit by a Venetians gun and cannon fire bombardment, causing major destructions. Many claim the Greeks should be thankful, as the transfer of the marbles has been proved to be highly beneficial to their conditions.
4. The Marbles were legitimately removed
The Elgin Marbles were legitimately removed on the basis of a legal document written in 1801. Before removing the marbles from their original location, Lord Elgin waited for the firman, a letter written and signed by the Sultan Selim III, ruler of the immense Ottoman Empire which at the time included Greece. The Italian copy of the document is now owned by the British Museum.
5. The marbles cannot be placed back in their original location, they would simply move from museum to museum
The remaining sculptures, even if they were returned to Greece, could not, in any case, be repositioned on the Parthenon, subject to poor environmental conditions and earthquakes. Greece recently completed the new Acropolis Museum, leaving an empty space in which the Elgin marbles could one day be displayed. However, as the marbles cannot be placed back in their original location, would them being at a museum in Athens rather than in London make much difference? In Addition, at the British Museum one can admire these works of art in the continuity of history, next to masterpieces from earlier and later civilizations tightly connected to the Greek one.
…And why they should be returned to Greece
1. The documents allowing their removal are ambiguous and were written in a period of foreign occupation
Not only the original firman of the Sultan allegedly allowing Lord Elgin to take the marbles to Britain is lost, but the only remaining copy in Italian, owned by the British museum, is subject to several interpretations. Moreover, the marbles were taken from Greece when it was under foreign occupation. The Ottomans ruled the country from the mid 15th century to the mid 19th century and the question persists of whether the Ottomans actually had legal authority over the Athenian acropolis or not.
2. The disastrous restoration of the marbles in 1939
In 1939, Lord Duveen, one of the most influential art dealers of the time and funder of the Duveen Gallery housing the marbles, instructed British Museum’s restorers to “clean” the artworks and make them look as they supposedly were at the time of their creation. They were scrubbed with copper chisels and carborundum in order to become more attractive in the eyes of a modern viewer, who wrongly considered white as the color of all ancient sculpture.
This truly was a restoration catastrophe, employing unauthorized methods that caused irreversible damage. The British museum, aware of the fact, hid the masterpieces for 10 years, hoping no one would notice the mistake. Did the removal of the marbles from Athens, then, really save them from damage.
3. A precedent for returns of monuments to the countries of origin
The Elgin marbles would not be the first artwork or monument returned to its country of origin after a long permanence abroad. The Axum Obelisk is an example among others. This 24 metres high granite stone built about 1700 years ago, was returned to Ethiopia after 68 years of permanence in Italy. Looted at the time of Mussolini, the monument was repatriated in 2005 following a UN agreement.
4. Greece has a museum ready to house the marbles
In 2007, the New Acropolis Museum opened in Athens, right beneath the acropolis hill. Instead of being shown in the neoclassical context of the Duveen Gallery, the marbles would be in a modern architectural setting, in front of grand glass windows resting on the Parthenon itself. They would not be exposed to pollution and would be taken care of by teams of conservators equipped with some of the most advanced technologies in the world. If the excuses concerning the conservation of the marbles were valid in the past, they no longer are today.
5. The marbles are a symbol of Greece’s cultural heritage and should be shown in situ
Essential part of the Parthenon, the marbles are symbol of Greece’s cultural heritage and glorious past, not just any ancient Greek monument. The poet Yannis Ritsos perfectly summarized the present situation in one of his works. “These stones don’t feel at ease with less sky,” he wrote. Their beauty will never be fully appreciated between the walls of a museum miles away from the Acropolis. Context definitely has a great impact on the admiration of works of art, especially if they are so inextricably tied to their original site