On Parthenon; its Marbles, the History, and the Same Old Story ......
Elginism, the taking of cultural treasures, often from one country to another (usually to a wealthier one) … The term is sometimes applied to any looting of cultural heritage for personal gain.
In May of this year I went to see what turned out to be a lovely exhibition with excellent programming called Gods and Mortals in Olympus at the Onassis Cultural Center which is inside the Olympic Tower in Midtown Manhattan. I had never been inside the building before and it was a pleasant surprise to see that displayed on the walls of the lobby were The Parthenon Marbles Cast Collection of the City College of New York. These casts were acquired in 1852 and over the years needed restorations which were completed in 2000 with funds from The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation USA. I especially liked that the original marbles of the Parthenon which are separated between two museums, the British Museum in London, and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece were chosen to be displayed united, albeit in a quiet, subdued way.
Casts of Galloping Horsemen (North Frieze) at the Olympic Tower, New York
The Original Block XXXI on the left is at the Acropolis Museum, while the Original Blocks XXXII-XXXIV on the right are at the British Museum
All this made my thoughts go back to subject of the Parthenon Marbles, previously known as the Elgin Marbles. Actually being in the museum field the subject never goes away, so I should more correctly say that I thought of Athena, (called Minerva, in Rome), the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war, who is slow to anger and fights for only just causes; for whom a temple, the Parthenon, was built in the 5th Century BCE, on the Acropolis, in the city of Athens to which she is the patron.
Copy of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin), holding Nike, Goddess of Victory in her right hand
The Parthenon came to symbolize the birth of Democracy, Western Civilization, World Heritage and influenced our notions of balance and symmetry in aesthetics so immensely that it became the inspiration for the architectural design of the US Supreme Court, the US Treasury, and the British Museum. UNESCO (United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the very body that has chosen it as a World Heritage Site has also chosen the Parthenon as its logo.
The Parthenon, on the Acropolis, visible throughout Athens
Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Reading the history of Parthenon and all its suffering, in fact provides a history of the world of rape, pillage and plunder. The Parthenon went through its share of atrocities: It was turned into a church, then when Athens was conquered by the Ottomans into a mosque with a minaret and all, later was used as a garrison, and munitions storage which exploded during the Ottoman-Venetian War causing further damage, during the Greek Independence War the Ottomans "began to break the surviving walls of the cella to get at the lead shielding of the clamps and melt it down for bullets. The Greek besiegers sent a message offering to give them bullets if they would leave the Parthenon undamaged", and then during the German occupation of Greece, it had to endure having the Nazi flag on mast. There are pieces lost through all kinds of disaster, including pollution, but one insult that can be corrected and to this day is not, is that the collection of marbles which were dismembered from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin is still being held at the British Museum in London.
As you enter Duveen Galleries in the British Museum where the marbles are displayed, it asks this question: “Why are the Parthenon Sculptures always in the news?”
The view upon entering the Duveen Galleries housing the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum
Well, to make a long story short, Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and according to the British Museum, Britain’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin, obtained a firman, a decree, in 1801, from Sultan Selim III for the removal of the marbles to transport, which was all legal as proper permission was received. To this day, the British Museum claims to have legal title, and since it is an encyclopedic museum, a global museum which offers a history of the world in one setting for an international audience, insists it is the best setting to have these marbles. I personally am not a strict supporter of repatriation of cultural artifacts unconditionally and believe each claim requires a fair an objective assessment that would be beneficial on maximum fronts. Although I admit keeping almost half of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum never, ever felt right, letting Athena be my guide in wisdom, I decided to keep an open mind and research further.
Lord Elgin, is the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He campaigns many times to remove parts of the Parthenon but is not granted rights for removal. But he has his eyes on them. Throughout its history the Ottoman Empire has had closer relations with France, but relations had changed when Napoleon came to power and invaded Egypt and Syria, all under Ottoman rule. So when the British beat Napoleon’s armies and forced them to leave, the Sublime Porte was impressed. It was only then that the British ambassador had a favorable position.
As a clear abuse of his power as an ambassador, he persists for the sawing off of the marbles for his personal use in his home in Scotland. (This is not the same case as a scholar, or an archeologist doing excavations and then transporting them for the common good of humanity, for safety to avoid destruction, for further study, etc.).
He bribes, using governmental funds, for his own sake.
The firman that Elgin received in this case was not even a firman from the Sultan per se. It is a letter, not given by the Sultan but by the Kaimakam, the Acting Grand Vizier. There exists no record of this firman or letter in the Ottoman Archives, which doesn’t mean much in fact as they were known not to record everything. What exists, and what the British Museum says that provides legal title, is this letter's translation from Italian.
The letter, the one that exists in Italian, does not give permission to remove structural parts of the Parthenon, which is not what Lord Elgin does of course.
A Letter, not Firman
Photo: copied from the British Museum website, since removed
He obtains the firman, the letter, after repeated attempts, and after he has already started work.
He takes them not for the public good, but to keep them in his private home in Broomhall Scotland, for his personal pleasure, and if it weren’t for the fact that he eventually needed money because of his divorce from his wealthy wife, he wouldn't have found himself in the position of having to sell the marbles to the British Government.
Members of the British House of Commons in its fascinating arguments seem to detest Lord Elgin. In fact, in portions where there was dissent, it was talked about how he had abused his position as an ambassador. And yet in another section it is recommended that the British Museum should hold the marbles in the Public Trust, until such time as they would be safe to return.
Now, it all seems fair to return them right? But no, the British Museum has been making these arguments for keeping them:
The British saved them. The Marbles would have been ruined if left in situ. While this argument might be true, it has since come to light that the British Museum did cause irreparable damage to the Marbles when Lord Duveen, who paid for the renovated galleries in the British Museum where the marbles are housed, had a damaging cleaning done on the marbles and caused severe damage, too.
The Marbles cannot be physically placed in their original position in the Parthenon; they have to be in a museum. Well, this argument is obsolete since 2009 when the new Acropolis Museum designed by the French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, within sight of the Acropolis opened.
Parthenon Metopes in the Acropolis Museum
Photo: Acropolis Museum Website
More people get to see and learn and admire the Marbles in the British Museum. Can you really learn, understand and study an artwork that tells a complete story in its totality when what you display is in fragments and out of context?
It would set a precedent. More and more source countries would ask for the repatriation of works in the collections of great museums if the Parthenon marbles were returned. If you ask me I find this the most offensive: To say that we wouldn’t right a wrong, for fear of correcting more wrongs in the future. Do we still want to hold on the notion of museums in countries with imperial rulers which showcase their conquests through the looting of art they have done? Shouldn’t museums be more about the truth? The history, as fact. As we change and understand history more from an objective point of view, shouldn’t museums advocate a more open mind, so that the very nationalism idea that prevents repatriation is in fact turned into globalism that includes acceptance.
It has become a nationalist issue, a sort of cultural fascism. I would say, it also looks nationalistic on their side too, like British superiority that has imperialistic tones in it saying that they and only they can take better care and have a right to display them.
The British Museum is a Global Museum. I wonder if everybody would think this way if the Parthenon Marbles were placed under the same conditions, in a global museum in China; would everybody still be rooting for the Chinese Museum to hold them, or would the British then ask for the return to Greece? Is there a little bit of Anglo/White superiority here too?
More people visit, and get to see the Marbles in the British Museum. If the issue is about having more people visiting London than Athens, hence more people having access to Greek culture by way of visiting museums, would you be comfortable with the same argument if they were in a museum in Beijing, where they would be visited daily by way too many more visitors? Now tell me, are you free of all judgments?
Ultimately, as I have been saying from the beginning, wouldn’t we want to see everything in its totality? The frieze, the metopes, in their totality have a narrative. It is a story only as a whole. The late Christopher Hitchens who wrote the book The Parthenon Marbles asked in a Vanity Fair article this: "If the Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the separated halves had been acquired by different museums in, say, St. Petersburg and Lisbon, would there not be a general wish to see what they might look like if re-united? If you think my analogy is overdrawn, consider this: the body of the goddess Iris is at present in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London, and the rear part is in Athens".
Body of Iris in the British Museum (the Head is in Athens)
Photo: British Museum
And there are pieces that are missing already, gone forever, but pieces that were held in the Vatican, Rome, Palermo, and Heidelberg, have so far been returned, but the British still remain steadfast. And if you do believe in the reunification of an artwork, wouldn’t it be logical to have them reunited in Athens?
As a 13 year-old, on my first visit to the Parthenon (first one from left)
Photo: A.G. (with many thanks)
On my last trip to London in October, I made a short trip to the British Museum, the second time in my lifetime (the first being when I was 14 with my mother, one year after I had first seen the Parthenon in Athens - again it was not our first time in London then, but I had specifically asked to go so we could see the marbles.) I couldn’t convince anybody to come with me to the British Museum this time around, so I was alone. (A big problem these encyclopedic museums have is this: The failure to have repeat visitors, what else is new?).
Now, I go in there, enter the Duveen Galleries, and the first thing I notice in large letters is that the galleries were given by Lord Duveen, and then this whole defense about the marbles:
Why is it less about Athena, less about Parthenon, Athens, or Greece, and more about the defense of keeping them there? I did as ordered, and took a leaflet to find out more:
There was nothing to take with me about the Parthenon itself, only The BM defense for keeping its marbles
It really isn't about nationalism. When I went into the galleries I really wasn't impressed with the marbles there, they felt truly out of place, not awe-inspiring as they should. And besides, the subject has gotten too big, and is not going anywhere. How can museums be encyclopedic, about the truth, when they are on the defensive? Or when they are not even telling the truth? What the British museum does in fact, is holding on to imperialism. You can’t be all about the caring for the arts, holding your collection in the public trust while not even be accepting of the truth. Ultimately this creates a bad name for all museums.
Sometimes what I think to write about, for this blog and in general, becomes all-too-consuming, and I don't even know if anybody's reading. So if I am not distracted by something else that goes on in my life, I am constantly reading and researching. But I also realize I need to clear my mind a little bit, and last week trying to do that by turning on the TV, I came across a program which I had never seen before on PBS called Finding your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The program features prominent guests whose family history is explored, and this specific episode took the cases of three Greek Americans, Tina Fey, David Sedaris and George Stephanopoulos. All traced their history to Greece, and the effects of imperialism, and escape from foreign rule. In the end, each had their DNA tested which showed that both Tina Fey and David Sedaris had a Turkish mix there. While we could all be romantic and say, "oh isn’t that nice", more probably it is as a consequential effect of conquest, of exerting power over people seen as subjects, and raping them. And there it remains in the DNA.
I think in life it is not always easy to accept the past. How dark history is. We have a hard time grasping the atrocities directed at people, with no empathy, all in the name of power, of domination. But unfortunately we have to. Look at it all in retrospect, in all fairness see the facts as facts, come to terms with them, accept them, but in no way justify them, or defend them. The truth can only make us all better, together, as humanity, healing together.
Some years ago I was visiting Istanbul just as a crisis broke out when the Duchess of York, Sarah, went undercover and discover that children in an orphanage were badly mistreated. Incredibly, the whole country turned against the Duchess and perceived this as an insult on the national pride. There was one prominent person in the news, who once was an orphan herself, who defended nationalism, all the while doing that ending up defending criminals who abused children. What I had expected --what I would have done-- was a call for a press conference, and thank the Duchess for unearthing this deplorable crime committed against children. (And of course this had to be done undercover, otherwise how else do you catch them?) Say that you were committed to have these monsters be punished and would never tolerate that defenseless children be abused in any way, shape or form. And also point out that unfortunately finding qualified people are not easy. Ask the Duchess to help find and train qualified personnel so that children with no parents have the same opportunities as all others, there and elsewhere. Ask cooperation from British educators so that children will be safer, and ask her, in her power, to mobilize all civil organizations to get involved.” It’s as simple as that! It doesn’t matter what nationality the children are, or where they are located, or wherever the person who unearthed this info is. The children are what is important. We cannot, under any circumstances, defend rape, or abuse.
And in our case it is about Art, that in fact a wrong has to be made right. The British Museum, who claims to be a better steward for the marbles, who cares for the arts, for humanity, and be against rape and abuse of art, must be willing to return the marbles, help in guidance throughout the whole reunification process, continue to find funds for their care (after all if you cared for them so much, you wouldn’t just forget about them now, would you?). Create a joint program about the whole history.
I am all hopeful for all this. I understand this needs a change in legislature but the British Museum has a new, younger director in the German Hartwig Fischer, and the multi-ethnic Trustees of the Museum include 10 women. I think this whole new direction, much like the rest of the changing world who wants to be on the defense of only the Truth, and Truth itself, will finally do justice, and give to Athens what belongs to Athens, and give to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, what belongs to Athena.