Monday, June 29, 2009

The Elgin Marbles and the Parthenon

Here’s the debate in a nutshell: the Parthenon is perhaps the most famous icon of Athens.

Between 1801 and 1812, during the Ottoman occupation of Greece, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin removed many of the Parthenon’s sculptural elements and took them to London. The so-called Elgin marbles now reside in the British Museum.

Greece would like to have the Elgin marbles back, and has just opened the New Acropolis Museum in Athens to house them. The argument for returning them is more than simply an appeal to return art to its land of origin. As a single work of art, proponents, say, the Parthenon cannot be fully understood unless the pieces are seen together.

Why keep them in London? Some argue that their safekeeping in London has protected them from looting, weathering, and other damage that might have occurred in the intervening years. But the British Museum admits that they have suffered from the act of removal, from overzealous cleaning, and from the 19th century pollution of London.

It’s safe to assume that they would receive responsible curatorial care in either location today, and either way they would end up in a museum, not adorning the Parthenon itself. But museum officials are understandably reluctant to agree to all restitution claims, which would ultimately empty the museums.

What is your feeling on the issue? Where should the Elgin marbles live? Do they represent a different case than other works of art? Please vote in the poll at left and offer your thoughts in the comments.
Wikipedia's gives the full story of their removal and both sides of the issue for repatriation, link.
NPR's radio coverage yesterday, link.
British Museum's official story and position, link.
New Acropolis Museum, link.
Issue blog "Elginism," with various angles on the story, link.
Addendum: July 1: In the poll, 210 people voted on the question: "Should the Elgin Marbles Be Returned to Greece?" 47 (22%) voted to keep them in London; 150 (71%) wanted them to be returned to Greece; 13 (6%) voted for "no comment/other."


Erik Bongers said...

I have the same questions around this subject as the ones you state here. But I haven't managed to answer them for myself (yet).
The arguments for either side are very valid.

There is the ethical perspective.
Are museums filled with stolen goods? And if so, should they be returned?
When it comes to stolen art by the Third Reich we'll all opt for haven't them returned to their original owners. But for most art, the 'crime' isn't so clear-cut. That golden ring you are wearing may contain portions of gold that was taken from south american temples some odd centuries ago.

So that leads to a more pragmatical approach. I like the 'Utilitarian' view on ethics, where every ethical choise is weighed on the 'good' or 'bad' it will do. Usually this approach realy helps me with figuring out my (initial) point of view in an ethical matter.

So, what solution will do more good (or less bad) in the case of the Elgin Marbles?

Well...I have no idea!

So, leave it as it is then?
Or is there perhaps an 'out-of-the-box-thinking' solution?

(what a long comment to just pass the question on to the next reader)

Super Villain said...

why dont they just make cast replicas, then split the real and cast statues fifty fifty? a more then simple solution to as you say " a more then simple problem, haha"

James Gurney said...

Good idea, GooGoo. Another option is for the British Museum to display cast replicas and to loan all the originals to Greece while maintaining their legal ownership rights. But apparently the Acropolis Museum doesn't want to settle for that.

Erik, I love the way you put the question. There's also the argument of which location would draw the most visitors, but on that basis, they should probably be sent to Beijing.

Erik Bongers said...

I agree, but I couldn't find 'Beijing' in your poll.

Erik Bongers said...

I just remembered that I'd like to be blind to nationalities and borders. I also admire the lack of 'possesive' words like "I", "my", "mine" in traditional pigmee language. They just never knew the concept of personal property. (this may be an urban legend)

Translated: to me, top art should be as 'collectively available' as possible, and in that context, the origin of the art is less relevant than the future of the art.

To put it in a one-liner:
Humanity's heritage should be owned by humanity and not by a single nation.

That means that humanity should decide on any important decision concerning art that is 'bigger than it's nation's heritage', like greek art.

This leads to provocative ideas like 'take away the ownership of them marbles and give them to the United Nations (Unesco)'.

But isn't that theft in a communistic way?

I believe that eventually the world will be one big 'nation' with a number of states. History shows that this is an unstoppable (but slow) process. But most people still 'feel' more e.g. American or Belgian than 'World Citizen'. And thus the change of ownership from greek to UN would be considered theft by most people.
In Utititarian parlance : currently, UN ownership would do more bad than good to most people.

So, my opinion tends to lean to 'I don't care who owns the art, as long as it's publicly available'.

I just checked: entry to the British Museum is free of charge. That's good.

So, I don't care who owns the art but do I care where I can see it?
Is it relevant to see it 'on location'?
Well, to me, "on location" only has relevance in case the location is relevant to the art.
I mean that a painting in a museum in Beijing looks as good as the same painting in any other museum. Location is irrelevant in that case.
But with architecture and related sculptures that's another issue.

So, my opinion (currenly) is:

Having the marbles back in it's original place in the Parthenon is preferable above a museum (be it londen, Athens or Beijing).

But then what about weathering?
Arghh !

Since 'original location' is not a viable option, I chooce to leave them marbles where they are, as I do not see the benefit of having them in another museum, even if it's right next to that big stone greek lego construction.

But I'm still not sure...

Erik Bongers said...

There are some famous american speeches ("Four score and seven years ago I had a dream that, yes, we can hope for change"...or something...)

But in this debate on ownership of Great Art, I'd like to quote one other (though controversial) Great American Speech by Chief Seattle, in the context of 'selling' his land:
"How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?"

Ownership of earth?
Not that big difference between the words 'Earth' and 'Art'...

James Gurney said...

Erik, when a great work of art has no physical body (like Beethoven's 9th Symphony), the truth of your musings becomes especially clear. It crosses borders freely and becomes the property of all mankind.

It is electrifying to see Bach's or Brahms's music universally cherished by people in Japan or India. For an inspiring lecture on the Argentinian Youth Symphony, check out the TED Lecture by Jose Abreu.

Victor said...

I don't know the answer to the Elgin Marbles dilemma, but I have to say that one reason for keeping them in London is the format of their exhibit in the British Museum. The expansive space they are displayed in is very special- almost sacred feeling, especially in the evenings when the lighting is very dramatic.

Gillian McMurray said...

I'm with GooGooSupreme. The cast replicas they can make today are excellent and it should be perfectly possibly to split the collection and send half to Athens and keep the other half in the British Museum.

It's not as simple as saying there are 'stollen' items in museums though. Many artifacts were brought to the museum with the help of locals from a variety of countries In particular the Egyptian artifacts brought back by Giovanni Belzoni arrived here after being dug up and moved by local workmen, with the blessing of local chiefs and officials and with money exchanging hands. If a person who is officially in charge of a region agrees to sell off artifacts legitimately can a government come along at a later date and demand their return? I wish I had an answer to that. But Lord Elgin aquired the marbles while an ambassador for the Ottoman Empire (who had been ruling Athens for 350 years) and acted with the full understanding and permission of the authorities. The British Parliament later bought the marbles from Elgin and donated them to the British Museum. Many more items from the Parthenon are in museums all over Europe too I believe. So it's certainly not an easy question to answer.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Random York said...

I am having a problem with going back through history and correcting all of the wrongs. I usually file this sort
of argument away under a "the conquerer gets to write the history book" topic. This sort of thing seems to be the story of Man and I am more apt to wonder where the undoing of events stops. Though I do wish that Japanese guy would give "The Bowie Knife" back to Texas! (and New Mexico would return
that land that is rightfully ours).....

Unknown said...

I was always of the thought that foreign art in places will only allow for it to reach more people. Until I began to scratch the surface a little more regarding the acquiring of the Elgin Marbles.

A friend recently wrote this article on the opening of the museum and while it doesn't provide all the history or the answers, it does make some very good points.

While Elgin may have had the approval to remove items from the ruling authorities, we must remember that the ruling authorities at that time were oppressors and not Greek authority.

Perhaps the British Museum provided a safe place for the Marbles during a volatile time of transition in Greece and a time when Greece may not have been able to care for them properly. But, with the New Acropolis Museum open, the room in the British Museum which currently houses the Elgin Marbles can only be seen as a storage room and not the proper pedestal awaiting their return in Greece.

Erik Bongers said...

My 'Chief Seattle' quote seems to be from a 1970 movie script rather than the actual speech.
But my point is still clear:)

And, ah yes, of course : music is indeed the best example of the 'universality' of art.
What a luxury for Musical Art that it cannot be locked up in a banksafe.

i, me said...

Goo Goo...Gilliam M...
Have you ever heard of King Solomon :)

anyway, It is my opinion they should stay where they are.
a. if Elgin did not save them, they would not be around - at the time, locals were literally hacking off pieces and selling them to tourists.
b. He purchased them fair and square - no one argues about that.
c. Where does it end? If Greece can have the marbles, then does egypt get her treasures? Does Italy get back napoleon's plunder which currently makes up the bulk of the Louvre?

In my opinion it time to stop this sort of bickering (i don't mean the discussion here, but Greece's demands) and move on. Besides, having artifacts in musuems all over the world is the greatest "come see beautiful greece!" travel brochure in the world.

side note: where I went to school they had casts of the full frieze- which was quite rare, since, I beleive one ship with the marbles foundered on its way to england -t the casts were taken before they were if someone recovered those!

i, me said...

While Elgin may have had the approval to remove items from the ruling authorities, we must remember that the ruling authorities at that time were oppressors and not Greek authority
if it were an oppressive greek government would that be ok?
Whose to say that the "Greeks' in that area are even the direct descendants of the actual builders much like say, "Briton" england has been overrrun Anglo-Saxon since the building of Stonehenge.

Unknown said...

Here's the article.

James Gurney said...

Nashville, Tennessee has an intact full-size replica of the Parthenon. It has 24-foot-high doors (the largest pair of bronze doors in the world) and 41 foot high Athena.

It may not have any original stuff, but it's a great way to get a feel for how the original looked with the sculptures in place. If only they would polychrome the thing.... Here's a link with lots of photos:

Jared said...

If I go to Europe I hope to see London and Athens (and Amsterdam, Paris, Germany, Prague, the Alps, Venice, Florence and Rome) on the same trip, so it's sort of all the same to me. Although as an English speaker already hoping to visit museums in London, I'd prefer them to stay there, but that is just selfish reasoning. Perhaps the museum in Athens can commission something expensive to draw people back to London?

Rubysboy said...

I think the marbles should be returned to Greece. The decisive factor for me is that, unlike most works of art, the Parthenon was commissioned by the then government of Athens and paid for by the people of the city as a civic monument.

Unknown said...

Wow, that is a tough one. I don't know how we would ever right all the wrongs of history. I like Goo Goo's suggestion. If it was done because London wants to, and not because they have to -- it would be a good gesture toward a land that wants to display it's own heritage.

craigstephens said...

This is a tougher question than I thought it would be. Giving them back to the Greeks sounds like a good idea, after all, they were originally created by Greek artists and paid for by the Greek citizenry as Decker pointed out.

The Ottoman's sold them while they were temporarily in possession but isn't that kind of like buying a stolen car? Granted, the sale ended up working out pretty well for the car but if I was the original owner of that car I'd still be pretty bummed.

A great case is also there for leaving them where they are. The British were also notorious empire builders and I'm sure they figured the Ottoman's rule would continue indefinitely. As far as they are concerned it was a legal sale made with the legal owner.

The more I think on it the more I like Goo Goo's 50/50 solution. Unfortunately, I don't think either side will go for it.

David Apatoff said...

James, here is a lawyer's perspective: the Elgin Marbles are probably the thorniest of all of the so-called "cultural patrimony" cases. Not only are they a highly emotional mess, but the facts are complex and tangled as well. Lord Elgin saved the marbles from certain destruction at great personal expense and risk; the Turkish army that occupied Greece at the time was actively burning ancient Greek sculptures to get lime to build fortifications. Without Elgin, there would be no scultptures today to squabble about. Then there is the added complexity created by the role of Turkey: some say that governments such as the Greek government lose their property rights in national items when they become too weak to defend themselves and their government is replaced by a new government (in this case, a conquering neighbor). The Turkish government had sovereignty over the Elgin marbles at the time they were removed and gave the Brits formal approval to take them, so in that sense their removal was legal and "authorized," regardless of what we might think about the morals. And finally, you have the obvious Greek cultural interest: as the birthplace of western philosophy and science, you'd think Greece was entitled to a little consideration and deference on this point (balanced against the fact that until recently the Greeks were notorious for mistreating their cultural treasures and might not have objected to the removal of the marbles).

There's an old saying in the law that "bad facts make bad law." That is, if you try to build a general rule around the most extreme, emotional fact situations like this one, you'll end up with a law that isn't very helpful for the vast majority of cases.

Most people may not be aware that there is a huge inventory of antiquities out there, and many local museums are choking on more material than they could ever properly exhibit or even take care of. Thousands and thousands of ancient ceramic pots lie on warehouse shelves gathering dust. I don't know if you've ever been to the Cairo museum but there is such a glut of material there, it is stacked up in the corners and draped on top of bookshelves. While I was there, they were painting the walls and didn't even bother to cover a large, dusty mummified crocodile with a drop cloth so it was being spattered with paint. This is a common story today-- nations and museums around the world are so obssessed with hanging onto their cultural heritage that they would rather see it crumble due to humidity, insects, pollution and unqualified employees than see an artifact slip across the border.

In my view, this narrow mindedness does not help anyone, including the cultural stature of the original artists whose work is never shared. My view is that such countries need a broader appreciation for the value in sending excess artifacts out around the world for cultural cross-fertilization purposes, as long as they are being put in trustworthy hands. Once everyone agrees that an originating country has a healthy, representative collection of their antiquities (well cared for) at home, there should be a more open and legitimate international trade in excess ancient art. This would keep treasures out of the hands of smugglers and art dealers. International sales and trades could be a good thing for cultural appreciation and understanding if they were openly regulated with standards that everyone can agree upon.

I recognize that it would be hard to apply such a rule to unique, monumental works such as the Elgin marbles, but even those I would leave where they are, for now. They have done Greece a great deal of good in the eyes of the world in their current location.

Sorry to drone on so long. That's the lawyer in me. I really love your blog, James and come here often.

James Gurney said...

David, WOW, what a thorough approach to the issues. For those who don't recognize his name, David Apatoff, in addition to being a brilliant legal mind, runs one of the most interesting art/illustration blogs, which today has a fascinating post on the
Illustration Academy in Sarasota.

i, me said...

British were also notorious empire 'notorious' compared to whom the mongol hordes, the beligians, the Chinese? The Japanese? The Moors? The Ottomans? The Mughals? The Aztects?
This, I think, is the really 'motivation' behind the desire to 'return' the marbles to Greece.

The Ottoman's sold them while they were temporarily in possessionTemporary? they ruled for 350 years, which is longer than the US has been in existence, and very possibly, will be.

Once again, I will ask:

A. what constitutes rightful ownership of such public works - lets assume that the majority of Englishmen today are largely of Saxon origin (I know there are arguments back and forth about this) do they have a 'right' to stonehenge, when in all likelihood they actually drove the people out who created it?

I am highly skeptical that the current residents of Athens are the DNA descendants of Athens circa 300BC.

b. Where does it end? I think the marbles would be the beginning,not the end, of such squabbles though people would think it would satiated the Greek government, as with other entitlements, it will only spark the desire for more.

Cheryl said...

I saw the Elgin marbles in London a few years back, and I couldn't help thinking how much more of an impact they would have if one could see them where they were originally designed to be.

Though I appreciated being able to see them in London, it just feels right that they should be returned. London has no real right to them, after all.

Andrew said...

Wow, huge turnout on this topic! This always brings up a good discussion amongst knowledgeable folk, and today hasn't disappointed.

I'm going to plant my feet firmly in "Keeping them in London." The reasoning for this? Not because of who rightfully got the marbles from who at the right time, or anything like that. It boils down to this sensibility to me: I am far more likely to visit London and see not only the Elgin marbles, but the other large myriad of cultural artifacts/museums/etc. than I am to go to Greece to just see uniquely Greek artifacts.

I would almost think that it's a disservice to have museums end up being such focused reflections of the local culture. I always enjoyed the art and science museums that had diversity. It broadens your view, and shows you there's more than just the little bubble you have around you.

And the captcha machine continues to grasp at one language or another, because my word today is "shisi".

donna said...

If I were going to the Parthenon, I would want to see the statues there. I think it makes a lot more sense.

I understand the British wanting possession, but I think Greece is the right place for them, especially now that they have a proper museum for them.

Just from the viewpoint of someone visiting a place and wanting to understand its history, it makes more sense. While in Paris, I was thrilled to see the Delacroix works there and the other French artists. It really made me understand them to be in the place they were created, with the beautiful light of Paris and being able to easily access its history right there.

Then again, I would rather visit Greece than London, so perhaps that's a part of how I feel. Visiting London is mostly a pain in the butt.

S. Weasel said...

Meh. Leave them in London. More "thank you for saving our marbles" and less "gimme that back, it's mine!" might have swayed me, however. They are in a beautiful, reverent setting where they are, anyhow.

And the Parthenon in Nashville is cast in aggregate cement. It lacks a certain...delicacy. And, ummm...taste. That was where Nashville's young stoners hung out, one of which I was, once.

It was right across the street from Old Colony Cleaners. Some jerk was always stealing the 'y' off the sign.

craigstephens said...

i, me,

I think all those who engage in empire building are notorious, at the very least, to the indigenous people who are subjugated or displaced by their empires.

The Ottomans were there for a while and now they're gone. That's temporary.

That said, I certainly see your point. The status quo has been good for the works in question and great for the viewing public. I'm really glad I don't have to decide for real.

Dar Presto said...

I am very glad to have seen the Parthenon exhibit at the British Museum. It was a fascinating experience to share with my children. I'm glad I don't actually have to figure out this dilemma, but I have to say, I think the planners of the New Acropolis Mus. bought the dress before they were invited to the prom.

Steve said...

I lack the wisdom and background knowledge to say where the marbles should go, but, since you filed this post under "pencil sketching," I wanted to say I admired (as always) the drawings. Also, I commend everyone for resisting the temptation to use the phrase, "The Greeks have lost their marbles."

Anonymous said...

My initial thought was that the marbles should be returned to Greece. However, considering all the internal political turmoil that Greece has suffered in the past century alone, some talibanesque crazies could seize control and destroy them. The marbles might be safer in a more politically stable Great Britain just as they were in the past.

Rubysboy said...

Apatoff writes: "some say that governments such as the Greek government lose their property rights in national items when they become too weak to defend themselves and their government is replaced by a new government (in this case, a conquering neighbor)." Not sure who says this, but by this criterion no contemporary country with an ancient civilization has any rights to the works of art commissioned and created by its artists. Egypt, China, Israel, Rome... have all been conquered, but I haven't noticed them forfeiting their rights to the artistic creations of their ancient forbears.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Given that we know that history of Elgin saving the marbles, and can trace back the political climate within which that sale took place, that alone places the discussion in a different area from the more general "stonehenge" DNA situation.

We cannot expect to go back and somehow rewrite the last 200 years of history, for all the reasons that have been listed above: the sale, as it was, at the time, was totally legal and, it turns out, necessary for the survival of the artwork. There is no distinct moral imperative here, however, there is an emotional one, and that more than most, is fueling the discussion.

If my grandparents had artwork stolen from them by the nazis, then yes, I would try to get the work back. If my grandfather sold soemthing that i wanted, i can't bitch decades later that i was cheated. Its gone and thats it. No amount of wanting on my part makes that piece of artwork mine for any greater other than my desire for it.

Greece may have achieved a small amount of economic and politial stability in the late 20th century, but it has been stable for a much smaller time than it was ruled by the Ottomans, so does that give the decisions that the Greeks made in the last 50 years less weight than those from the last 300? No, they're just different time periods, filled with different political entities with different ends to their means. What appears to be politically correct now will appear perhaps bizarre in another 50 years.

The marbles stay in London.

Roberto said...

The right thing for the Greeks to do is to acknowledge that the Ottomans were only trying to help them (the Greeks) to preserve their heritage and culture when they conquered them and sold off their Marbles to the Brits for safekeeping. Then they should profusely thank the Brits for taking such good care of them, Heck! They should probably even offer to pay for their stewardship, and reimburse the Brits what they originally paid for them. (This should please the lawyers… No offence meant, some of my best friends are lawyers) Then Nashville should offer to trade the Greeks their New Parthenon for the Greeks’ old beat up and incomplete one. This will so offend the French that they will offer to conquer GeatBriton and with their authority as conquerors take the original marbles for saferkeeping, in the Louver.

Either that or the Brits should give the Marbles back. (Just because it’s the right thing to do.)
Besides they could always barrow Nashville’s. (they should also consider trading Big Ben for a replica of Mt. Rushmore, or maybe a Statue of Liberty, I think Las Vegas might go for it. What’s you wager? ) -RQ

António Araújo said...

>The Ottomans were there for a >while and now they're gone. >That's temporary.

The problem is that we don't know if a situation is temporary until after the fact. When are you allowed to do business with an occupying power? When does it become a "permanent", or legitimate ruler of a region? Am I allowed to start doing business with the USA right now or should I wait a while longer to see if the Native Americans get their land back?

>I think all those who engage in >empire building are notorious, at >the very least, to the indigenous >people who are subjugated or >displaced by their empires.

It is ironic that the Parthenon was actually used as the treasury building for the Athenian Empire, and it was built with funds from the Delian league. So it is quite an imperialistic symbol in itself. As soon as the Greeks got rid of the empirialistic Persians, the Athenians built their own empire, which was resented enough that it started the Peloponnesian war. I think that we might get some perspective if we got on a time machine and asked the Athenians who made those marbles what they think of our current legal/moral question. To get a feeling for the answer, we might recall the famous passage from the Melian Dialogue:

"The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

These were the views of the original owners of the Parthenon: the inventors of realpolitik.

onlysand said...

of cource, you would say I am a greek, that's why I want the Marbles of Parthenon (and not the elgin ones) back to Athens

Ancient History though, is astonishingly overwhelming - many travellers have understood it since 500 b.C. and today

british museum's arrogance is almost at the top of their ignorance: they see the masterpieces as 'products' to get profit

beyond unfortunate comparisons, please take a closer look over the unique circumstances of this case

thanks for reading