Architecture and a very specific building, the Parthenon that has history and great cultural significance
The founder of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, James Cubitt, was a British architect.
On 02 December, 2008 at the RIBA, architect Bernard Tschumi and Professor Pandermails headed up the event: 'Presenting the new Acropolis Museum'.
In 2009 Tom Flynn as a member of BCRPM, wrote to the RIBA to seek their advice on the BCRPM's on-going campaign and because the Parthenon, a landmark building, still stands.
The BCRPM's campaign explains that the sculptures removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century were integral architectural members of the Parthenon, the building which still stands on the Acropolis.
'As every human life is unique and no one can predetermine how it will be carried out, it could be said that the human being bears a historical duality: the individual history, or education, and the collective history, or culture.
Both dimensions, education and culture, constitute the conceptual basis of all human action, defining values and the most appropriate means to achieve them. These dimensions can be viewed materially in cities through the urban landscape, the preservation of buildings and other heritage. Thus, the city is a record of human actions that remain in time, and architecture is a concrete example of the knowledge accumulated by countless individuals over successive generations. For that reason, architecture is a tool for understanding a certain period of time in the history of a people, culture or even civilization, since it shows the evolution of mankind's ingenuity, as well as its sense of harmony and values.'
When most of us visit Athens, even if we aren't there to see the Acropolis or its museum, we may catch a glimpse of the Acropolis as we ride a taxi or bus in the centre of town. We may be fortunate enough to be dining in one of the centrally located Athenian hotels with top floor restaurant and stunning views by day or night, year round - to the Acropolis. Magical views.
Before the Acropolis was a temple complex, it was a city - another great article in Arch Daily, worth reading too, from here.
'Although the marble stonework of the Parthenon had proven its durability against the ravages of time, it was not indestructible. In 1687, Venetian forces laying siege to Athens shelled the ancient city, igniting a powder magazine stored inside the Parthenon. The resulting explosion was catastrophic, obliterating the cella and the elaborate frieze that had adorned its exterior. Attempts by the Venetians to remove statues from the pediments were similarly disastrous, as multiple sculptures fell to the ground and were shattered beyond repair. Most of the remaining statues and reliefs (known as the "Elgin" or "Parthenon Marbles") were later spirited away in the early 19th Century by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Controversially, these pieces are displayed in the British Museum to this day. Meanwhile, the Parthenon itself has since undergone rigorous restoration and preservation work, with much of the damaged peristyle reassembled to give modern visitors a glimpse of the temple's ancient splendour atop the hill where it has stood for over two thousand years.'
Professor Katherine Schwab on ancient hairstyles and drawings that continue to engage museum visitors
Professor Katherine Schwab, was interviewed by one of Greece’s newspaper websites, Greece Is, about her research on ancient Greece’s most famous hairstyles, those of the Caryatids, the sculptures that stand in place of columns in the south porch of the Acropolis in Athens.
The Erechtheion or Erechtheum, Acropolis, Athens (Greece)
In the Greece-is.com article, Schwab, who is an art history professor and expert in Greek and Roman art and architecture, said she first noticed these intricate hairstyles about a decade ago while studying archival photographs taken at the Greek temple by the German photographer Gösta Hellner.
The marble sculptures, whose female figures where carved nearly 2,500 years ago, are remarkably well-preserved and their hairstyles provide a wealth of information about the role that hair had and continues to have in societies today.
Professor Katherine Shwab
"Among the most remarkable things we discovered during this project is that hair has a great significance. Hair can symbolize rites of passage, personal identity, status, cultural identity and much more. Research on these ancient hairstyles can lead in many directions and result in a wealth of information about the role of hair then and now. The hairstyles worn by the ancient Caryatids, are unusual and seem to belong to an earlier tradition. This is probably why they would have been worn only for very special occasions. In part, these hairstyles linked these maidens to past traditions within Athenian society, forming a bridge across time and generations." Commented Professor Schwab.
As part of her research project at Fairfield University where she teaches, Schwab invited students to have their hair styled in the historic braids, which was captured in a video that documented the recreation of six individual hairstyles of the Caryatids.
Schwab’s research also includes drawings of the Parthenon, where she devised a technique to show what remains of ancient sculptures in order to determine the original compositions. Copies of her drawings are part of the permanent installation in the Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon Gallery.
The Caryatids in the Acropolis Museum, Athens (Greece)
Fashionable fishtale braids, created by the ancients, continue to be recreated today for special occassions
Schwab’s notes, and the originals were obtained for a travelling exhibit in the U.S. that began in 2014 in New York City. The exhibit toured many colleges and universities.
Professor Schwab will receive the 2017 Distinguished Faculty award at Fairfield University’s annual dinner and awards event in NYC in March this year.
Professor Schwab continues to visit the Acropolis Museum every year.
“Grayscale scans of my metope drawings are part of the installation in the Parthenon Gallery and to have them included is a great privilege for which I am very thankful. You can see them on the frames holding the east and the north metopes. My hope is that the drawings bring attention to the metopes which were originally highly visible in antiquity. The scans of my drawings, combined with the original metopes, engage the museum visitor in considering the original composition and what has been lost. Thanks to Professor Pantermalis, President of the Acropolis Museum, it’s possible for me to draw in the Parthenon Gallery for many hours each day during my research trips to Athens. Sometimes visitors come over and talk to me to ask what I’m working on and they become quite curious about the Parthenon’s sculptural programme and the research conducted by archaeologists. They’re often surprised that research on the Parthenon carries on and will do so for many more years to come.” Concludes Professor Shwab
Tristram Besterman was the keynote speaker at the London 07 June 2016 commemorative event organised by the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in conjunction with:
The International Organizing Committee – Australia – for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles Inc. (IOC-A-RPM) and the South African Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (SACRPM).
The event marked 200 years from the date in 1816 when the British Parliament voted to purchase from Lord Elgin his collection of sculpted marbles collected from the Parthenon and elsewhere on the Athenian Acropolis.
To date and despite many requests made by Greece, the British Government and the British Museum are not looking to find ways to reunite what is a peerless work of art. For more information on the UK Government and British Museum's position, please click here.
Keynote speaker for the event was Tristram Besterman and his paper entitled, Museums: letting the genie out of the bottle, provided all that attended with food for thought.
Placing the debate around the contested Parthenon sculptures in the context of the 21st century museum, Tristram reflected on the democratically accountable museum, his own involvement in repatriation and how we should open up the museum as a space where other voices are heard. Far from a betrayal of Enlightenment values, museums are true to their roots when they challenge orthodoxy and reframe authenticity.
To read Tristram's paper, please click here.
Tristram Besterman is a freelance adviser and writer on museums and issues of cultural identity, dispossession and restitution. He draws on over forty years of experience of leading, managing, and developing museums in the public realm in the UK.
Following a brief stint with the BBC in London, Tristram's first job in a museum was in Sydney in 1974. There he discovered that his interest in public communication also called upon the scientific training he'd received at Cambridge. On a visit to Canberra, Tristram witnessed the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside the national Parliament building, a scene that raised his own awareness of Aboriginal rights in Australia.
On his return to the UK, Tristram's subsequent museum career took him via Sheffield, Warwick and Plymouth to the Manchester Museum, where he was director from 1994 until 2005. In 2003, the Manchester Museum repatriated a number of human remains to Australian Aboriginal representatives, one of the first UK museums to do so. To read more on this, click here.
For over two decades Tristram was influential in the development of museum ethics in the UK and internationally, and was Convener of the Museums Association Ethics Committee from 1994 to 2001. He redrafted and renegotiated the definition of a new kind of socially reflexive museum for the profession. This underpinned the publication of the Code of Ethics for Museums which was adopted by the Museums Association in 2002. A radical departure from the object-focus of its predecessor, at the heart of the new Code was the museum's accountability to society.
He has served on a number of national bodies in the cultural sector, including the UK Government's Ministerial Working Group on Human Remains from 2001 to 2004. Trained as a civil mediator, Tristram has been an advocate for and instrumental in the repatriation of human remains to source communities in Australia and New Zealand from Manchester, Brighton and the British Museum. He contributes to the literature on cultural restitution and is currently involved in an academic study of the cross-cultural understanding and friendship that can develop between participants in repatriation.
Kevin P Ray has written a lucid and timely analysis of the knotty problems facing any attempt to achieve a legal resolution of the dispute over the Parthenon Marbles: which court would be competent to hear a case about an alleged transgression, the details of which are in dispute, by Lord Elgin of the terms of a licence, the precise status of which is unclear, under the legal system of a country, the Ottoman Empire, which no longer exists, brought two centuries later by a national state, Greece, which first came into being only at a later date, and if such a court could be found, how would it enforce its judgement?
He considers The Hague Convention (there was no armed conflict involved), the UNESCO Convention (not retrospective) and the UNIDROIT Convention (the UK is not a signatory). He suggests the need for the articulation of a "new rule of customary international law", which does not currently exist, relying on these conventions together with the ECHR and the 1993 EU Directive on the Return of Cultural Objects, but points out the limitations even of this.
He concludes by suggesting that the situation may continue to be intractable unless the differing parties are prepared to move the question on from recrimination and disputes over title and ownership, with absolute positions and national and political emotions set aside and a new emphasis on flexibility, negotiation and mutual benefit.
Kevin Ray is Of Counsel in the Chicago office of Greenberg Traurig LLP. He focuses his practice in the areas of art and cultural heritage law and financial services (lending transactions and restructuring/insolvency matters). He represents and advises artists, art galleries, art collectors, museums and cultural institutions in a variety of transactions, including consignments, questions of title, provenance, and compliance with national and international law. He advises lenders and debtors on issues unique to art, antiquities and other cultural property in a variety of lending and commercial transactions. Prior to practicing law, Kevin was director of rare books, manuscripts and art collections at Washington University in St. Louis and taught at the Washington University School of Art.
Kevin is the author of Art and Cultural Property (forthcoming, American Bar Association Press, 2016), is a frequent speaker and writer on art and cultural heritage law issues, and is a frequent contributor to Greenberg Traurig's art and cultural property lawblog, Cultural Assets (http://www.gtlaw-culturalassets.com/ )
The photograph on the dust jacket of Tiffany Jenkins’s Keeping Their Marbles shows a museum display of breathtaking elegance and beauty. Two dozen small fragments of marble sculptures seem to float in mid-air, fixed to one another and to the plain white base of the display with simple brushed steel rods. A good threequarters of the original sculptural group is lost, but the viewer’s imagination fills in the gaps with little effort. At the left, a female figure dashes in, reaching towards a rearing horse, perhaps pulling at its flying reins; at the centre, two huge figures, one male, one female, stand locked in struggle. In the sculptures, everything is motion and energy. By contrast, the gallery space that surrounds them is crisp and minimalist, with nothing to distract the viewer’s attention from the astonishing objects on show – except perhaps the wooded hills just visible outside the window, with the sun setting behind them. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the book’s subtitle: “How the treasures of the past ended up in museums . . . and why they should stay there”.
The photo shows the surviving sculptures from the west pediment of the Parthenon, displayed with sensitivity and tact in a museum space of the most extraordinary beauty. The museum in the photograph is the Acropolis Museum in the city of Athens, one of the world’s truly great museums, which houses not a single item looted, stolen, or bought from a country poorer than the Athenians’ own. The female figure on the left, a study in kinetic energy, is the goddess Iris. The head of the goddess is original, but her body is a plaster cast; Iris’s body today stands in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum. Dull is the eye, wrote Byron, that will not weep. He was right.
Read the full article by Peter Thonemann on Tiffany Jenkins' book here
The article was printed on 29 April 2016
Dr Peter Thonemann
The following week (06 May) the Editor printed a letter submitted by a reader, James Hall from Winchester:
There was, as you might have anticipated, a long set of email exchanges amongst BCRPM members.
Hon President Prof Anthony Snodgrass wrote a reply to the letter by James Hall.
Sir, - The odd cultural judgment apart - Byron as an ‘opportunistic buffoon’ -the great length of James Hall’s letter on the Parthenon Marbles (May 6) is down to the number of factual misstatements, some new, some worn by repetition, that he insists on including. There is no space to do more than list them, before picking out what is perhaps the prize specimen.
‘Most large sculptures in Greek museums have been stripped from temples (unearthed, not ‘stripped’ - that was left to Elgin); ‘imported slaves built the Parthenon’ (a tendentious exaggeration); ‘the National Museum contains work from colonies throughout the Aegean’ (a devious word-play on the associations of the word ‘colony’); the Acropolis Museum is ‘poorly attended’ (yet it somehow attracts greater numbers than that minority of British Museum visitors who actually enter the Duveen Gallery); ‘Those professionally involved with Greece presumably fear for career and well-being if they come out in favour of retention’ (he must be alone in so presuming).
As a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, I am flattered that he credits our movement with ‘great social, political and academic clout’, but that is surely another exaggeration; and it is equally far-fetched to call our opponents ‘a silent majority’ when they are neither silent nor a majority - as a glance, respectively, at the reactionary press or at a series of periodic U.K. opinion polls will show.
But: ‘the Marbles have been well loved, treated and contextualized’ in Bloomsbury’ - that is going too far. Well contextualized in the acknowledged ‘joylessness’ of the Duveen Gallery, with the frieze turned inside out and the arrangement doctored to hide the gaps ? And was James Hall around in 1999 when the British Museum hosted a colloquium on the ‘cleaning’ operation, carried out sixty years earlier at Duveen’s insistence, where one of its own Keepers described the cleaning as ‘a scandal, and the cover-up … another scandal’ ? Many of the London sculptures lost up to a millimetre of their surface in that operation; to see the original surface detail of the frieze slabs, one must revert to the pieces in Athens that had been ‘at the mercy of the toxic elements’ - well yes, but these have still turned out to be more merciful than the chisels and abrasives of Duveen.
Paul Cartledge on democracy ancient and modern: what can we learn from the Greeks?
Fom University of Cambridge, David Runciman presenting 'Election Politics' podcast
And for the book:
- The long story of democracy, from ancient Greece to the twenty-first century, including:
- How democracy was born and developed in the ancient world - and the many different forms that it took
- The long centuries of democratic eclipse - from Byzantium to the Renaissance
- The arguments against democracy over the centuries
- The re-birth of democracy in seventeenth century England, revolutionary France, and the United States
- How democracy has been constantly reconstituted and reinvented ever since
To order a copy follow the link:
Location: Council Room (K2.29) King’s Building Strand CampusCategoryConference/Seminar, Culture
When: 03 (10:00) - 04/06/2016 (18:30)
Contact for tickets, please visit the King's eStore
Description: Classics and/as World Literature conference
The aim of this two-day international conference is to explore (1) how Greek and Latin classical authors, often in modern-language translations, have historically functioned as part of the colonial curriculum and (2) their status relative to Comparative Literature and World Literature.
World Literature has been advocated as new approach to the study of literature in a globalised age, and as one which avoids the nationalist and colonialist pitfalls of studying literatures in traditional departmental and disciplinary formations. But prominent advocates of World Literature have as yet evaded the challenge presented by the ancient Greek and Roman literature to their conceptual framework.
Histories of World Literature progress from Gilgamesh immediately to Dante and skip everything in between. This conference is designed to address that lacuna and emphasise the rightful place of ancient Greek and Latin texts, imperialist warts and all, at the heart of the 21st-century international World Literature syllabus.
Spaces are limited. Please book your place via the King's eStore
Reading Edith Hall’s book on the Ancient Greeks, develops a deep respect for the power of poetry. No poet was more effective in this regard than Homer recounting the sea adventures contained in the ‘’The Odyssey’’. It shaped the self-definition of a nation and engendered self-confidence. The mariners set out in their beautiful ships across the Aegean and established colonies to the West, in the Mediterranean as far as the Pillars of Hercules, to the East as far as the Levant and built trading cities in natural harbours along the fertile edges of the Black Sea. They were, as Plato wrote in the Phaedo, “around the sea, like frogs and ants around a pond.” They were encouraged by Delphic oracles and inspired by the company of diving dolphins.
The structure of Hall’s account is clearly set down at the start with a useful chronology from the Myceneans in 1500 B.C. to the close of the Delphic oracle in 395 A.D. providing a clear context for the following text. It also gives a framework that neatly conveys the interaction between individuals, resources, military conflicts, the arts, sports, social upheavals and importantly the contributions of recent research. Anyone reading this book will discover how much our understanding of the Greeks has developed currently from new excavations, discoveries and recent scientific techniques. The first four strongly interconnected qualities that Hall ascribes to the Greeks are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring. Further, they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in people of talent, were exceptionally articulate and were also addicted to pleasure.
Read more here
On 27–29 April, the departments of History and Greek & Latin at University College London are organizing a collaborative conference to bring together recent scholarship on the interplay between economics and ancient warfare.
“War,” Thucydides wrote, “is not about weapons, but money.” The ancients saw the link between economics and warfare, and throughout antiquity their understanding of these two areas of human activity developed hand in hand. Wars were fought over resources and trade networks; states experimented with ever more sophisticated forms of wealth extraction to finance their campaigns. The development of state finances allowed war to grow ever more sustained and professional, evolving from the border raids of untrained Greek militias to the world-conquering campaigns of Imperial Rome. Writes Roel Konijnendijk
Tiffany Jenkins certainly knows how to raise eyebrows, not least those of her fellow panellists discussing “Who owns Culture” on Start the Week, BBC Radio 4, Monday 15 February, 2016. And no wonder. Let us consider a string of pronouncements which cannot pass unchallenged.
Did Elgin save the marbles from being “ground for mortar”? Possibly some the rubble from the explosion of 1687 was being thus recycled. Because of the difficulty of transporting building materials in antiquity it was established practice to reuse available fallen masonry. It is however highly unlikely that any of the pieces that Elgin’s workmen hacked and crowbarred off the Parthenon were at such risk?
Did Elgin rescue them from damage through exposure to the elements? With hindsight, yes. Acid rain certainly damaged those left in situ, but acid rain was not a problem in Athens in the 18th century. It did not play a part in Elgin’s purpose.
Were the marbles “Decontextualised” in the British Museum? No. They were Recontextualised. Their original context was incorporated in the British Museum’s artificial construct. Their original context is inalienable. The British Museum’s is contingent.
Is repatriation an invalid concept because “no object is where it was created”. Unless I am corrected my understanding has always been that raw blocks of marble were transported to the Acropolis and sculpted there. Indeed, as the work proceeded, on the Parthenon itself. This is fundamental to our argument – that the Parthenon is a fixed monument (and not any old fixed monument) and the marbles belong with it.
Does it matter that “they cannot go back on the Parthenon”? Isn’t it now established curatorial practice for monumental sites to have museums attached, for contextual purposes, to display related objects AND if necessary to protect vulnerable pieces from exposure to the elements. The Acropolis Archaeological Park and the Acropolis Museum are an outstanding example.
Does it matter that “they aren’t the same as the originals” (which were olychromatic)? That may be relevant to the question as to whether they should be repainted but it is not relevant to the reunification of the single artistic entity. The form is more important than the original painted surface.
Does it matter that you “only 65% survives”? What matters is that what survives is divided roughly 50/50 between London and Athens. Since when has it been a requirement that 100% completeness is necessary to restore a work, particularly monumental masonry?
Was the argument when they arrived in England more about their worth than the manner of Elgin’s acquiring of them? Certainly Tiffany Jenkins can cite men of culture who regarded them as a heap of old ruins, and certainly much of the discussion in the Select Committee convened to consider their purchase was on the level of “never mind the quality, feel the width”, but the evidence is, and indeed much of the justification for retaining them, that they were valued for their transformatory cultural effect.
As for Tiffany Jenkins assertion in her book that “few doubt the legal right of the British Museum to keep the Elgin Marbles”, the less said the better.
Eddie O'Hara, Chairman BCRPM
Openings: Judgment is not set in stone by Tiffany Jenkins
Letter in the Financial Times in response to Tiffany Jenkins article 12 February 2016 Openings: Judgment is not set in stone.
Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums, and Why They Should Stay There by Tiffany Jenkins
Museums shouldn’t be sending any treasures back, insists this forthright study. John Carey Published: 14 February 2016 in the Sunday Times Review
This month marks a year since BCRPM lost a long serving Deputy Chairman, Christopher Price.
Chris continues to be missed, his energy and dedicaion to the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles was second to none.
His obituary written by Julia Langdon in the Guardian can be read online here.
Sitting with Chris in Athens on a number of occassions from 2000 to 2009, soaking up the Attica light, I was in awe of his knowledge and passion for the classics. He was a firm believer in classics for all. A belief shared equally by new BCRPM member Edith Hall.
Edith's article on the importance of access to ideas from classical antiquity was published in the Guardian Review and can be read on line here
Judith Hall's 'Ode on a Grecian Quarry' lifted our January spirits. If you haven't read this blog, do make time to do so, even after January. We also appreciated the photos which were graced by that Attica light -we're certain that the TV crew found it perfect for their filming too.
And so to the thought about where the fragmented Parthenon Marbles would best be viewed. The 'crowbarred ' frieze blocks, metopes and pedimental statues that were removed in the early nineteenth century by Lord Elgin and transported to Britain, would look amazing - when and if - they might be reunited.... in Athens.
To read Edith blog, view it here
The two-hundred-year-old debate over the ownership and placement of the Parthenon Sculptures, otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles, is one that has renewed relevance in today’s world. Repatriation controversies have become a crucial facet of international museum law and relations, while the concurrent completion of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens and the Greek economic crisis inject new factors into the specific case of the Parthenon Sculptures. The new museum allows for the conversation to be redirected towards achieving repatriation on the grounds of artistic and archaeological integrity and unity, rather than debates over purchase authentication and trustee ownership. My thesis reviewed the existing arguments for repatriation[i], but supplemented them by developing the underutilized argument of aesthetic integrity. I promote the concept of the Parthenon’s formal qualities and the need for cohesion among those qualities as the basis upon which the debate over placement and display of the sculptures should be governed.
Given the dearth of literature since the completion of the new Acropolis Museum (AM), I compare the authenticity and educational experience of the displays in the new AM and the British Museum (BM). Put simply, the estranged marbles cannot be considered or understood as autonomous artworks, as doing so ignores and diminishes the formal qualities of the Parthenon and the intent of its creators. My research examines precisely how the BM’s division of the sculptures continues to injure the integrity of the Parthenon, as well as how the museum’s presentation of the sculptures does a disservice to the archaeological record.
An examination of the Parthenon exhibit in the BM demonstrates a display that is contradictory to both the original structural and instructive aspects of the Parthenon. The displays in the BM are unnatural and serve to disrespect the Parthenon and its sculptures, inhibiting their unity both literally and conceptually. The layout also severely impairs both the viewer’s comprehension and the sculptures’ physical and iconological integrity. For example, in the BM, sections of the South frieze are estranged from the South metopes intended to accompany them. The South metopes are actually displayed along with the East and West pedimental programs (whose metopes are in Athens). The South and North frieze sections in the BM actually face each other, which greatly hinders the proper viewing progression of the narrative for all viewers unaware of the precise order of the Ionic (continuous) frieze.
One particularly interesting illustration of the connections that exist between the different types of sculpture on the Parthenon can be seen in an example that Olga Palagia points out, on the Northeast corner of the building. The metope on this corner (East side, metope 14) depicts Helios, the sun god who brings in the day, and his chariot with several horses. In the Parthenon’s original state, directly above this block, the horses of Selene, the moon goddess and sister to Helios, appear in the pediment facing the opposite direction.[ii] This juxtaposition of these opposing forces, who are related both by mythology and proximity, can hardly be random and is a poignant example of the methodical calculation and planning that went into the creation of the Parthenon. In comparison, in the British Museum, Selene’s horse faces a metope plucked from the South side of the building.
Figure 1 and 2: Selene's horse and the display map in the British Museum. Although not labeled, the metopes that the horse faces are from the South metope-triglyph frieze. Source: Parthenon Gallery, British Museum, London. Photograph taken by author, 2014.
During my time in the BM, I watched as viewers hopped from South frieze to West pediment, to North frieze, to South metopes, all the while believing that they had gleaned the true meaning and message of these spectacular sculptures. This is an easy trap to fall into—the BM’s entire exhibition program of the Parthenon Sculptures works to maintain the focus on the magnificence of the individual sculptures, and simultaneously aims to deemphasize their connection to the Parthenon. Indeed, throughout the BM exhibition, there are only two small photographs (roughly 5 in. x 7 in.) of the Parthenon. In addition, nowhere in the entire exhibition can the viewer see a reconstruction, either physical or virtual, of all the remaining sculptures reunified.
By intentionally emphasizing the sculptures and deemphasizing their connection to the monument, the BM exhibition protects the viewer from the more complicated ethical issues. The sculptures are so beautiful that this is rather easy to achieve. Viewers are so entranced by the magnificence of the sculptures that it becomes extremely difficult to contemplate the notion that something is wrong with
the picture, so to speak. The concerning presentation of the marbles is a symptom of the bigger problem, namely the idea that the sculptures are independent, autonomous works that are conceptually free-standing, as well as physically free-standing. This line of thought should not be allowed to be perpetuated—it delegitimizes the conceptual basis of the Parthenon, just as it literally detracts from its physical integrity.
As I continued to document the sculptures’ layout, two visitors made a remark that quickly cuts to the heart of this issue. We were standing in front of some of the South metopes, many of which are missing heads, feet, and torsos from the figures they depict. Numerous wall texts read “The head is in Athens,” or “The feet are in BM Gallery 18b” (there are 3 separate Parthenon galleries in the BM). The man standing next to me sarcastically asked, “So what, is there an exhibition of heads somewhere?” This little comment speaks volumes—it communicates the confusion and frustration viewers feel at the disunity of the Parthenon’s elements and the disorganization of their display in the BM.
This sense of disunity is only enhanced when one continues to read the wall texts, particularly the didactics for the metopes and pedimental figures. Numerous pieces are missing heads, torsos, or feet, not because the pieces are destroyed, but because they are housed elsewhere, mainly in Athens. For example, in the West pediment room, there are seven pedimental figures and eight South metopes. Of the fifteen sculptural pieces in this room, the wall labels state that ten are missing body parts (see fig. 3). The pieces are in either the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the Wurzburg or Copenhagen museums, or, as is the case with the foot from a suspected torso of Hermes, in gallery 18a. Gallery 18a, which is separate from gallery 18, has an entire case of sculptural fragments (see fig. 4), which serves to aptly highlight the disunity and fragmentation of the overall presentation of the sculptures in the BM.
Figure 3: Wall text demonstrating the problem with the division of the sculptures. There are many other wall texts similar to this one in the Duveen Gallery. Source: South Metope Wall text, Duveen Gallery, British Museum, London. Photograph by author.
Figure4: Display case of sculptural fragments from the West Pediment of the Parthenon. Source: Gallery 18a, British Museum, London. Photograph by author.
To remove figures from the composition, or sections from the frieze, is to inhibit the whole building’s success and detract from current understandings due to a lack of proper context for the removed pieces. The sculptures in the BM are fragments, which, as Jennifer Neils states, are “simply trophies that make little sense aesthetically or intellectually in isolation.”[iii] It is not for modernity to arbitrarily decide which elements can be “stand-alone” pieces after they have been destructively distanced from their context. By prioritizing the missions of even the most revered universal museums over that of context and archaeological and aesthetic integrity, one negates the significance, meaning, and value of artifacts and museum collections.
The irrefutable logic of unity and cohesion can no longer be ignored, as the AM offers a spectacular—and highly superior—display that acknowledges and exalts the formal qualities of the Parthenon. In contrast, the BM presents the sculptures as conceptually freestanding pieces—a choice which neglects their context and higher purpose in the sculptural program of the Parthenon. The BM’s Parthenon Galleries fail to encourage an accurate understanding of the unity of the Parthenon and the relationships among its parts, and fail to appropriately present, and therefore connect, the sculptures to the monument. Despite Neil MacGregor’s constant use of the phrase “different and complementary stories,”[iv] let us be clear: There is no alternative interpretation of the Parthenon in the sense that it was created as a single, unified, site-specific monument. The BM has shown its disingenuous stripes through its botched attempts at rationalizing the retention of the marbles in London. MacGregor would have visitors feel as though they are, in fact, seeing a “complementary” perspective; in reality, visitors are seeing nothing more than a thinly veiled ploy to downplay the sculptures’ proper context—a maneuver that serves no purpose other than to attempt to ethicize a continued wrong.
Figure 5: Ilissos sitting in isolation in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Source: Helena Smith, The Guardian, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/05/parthenon-marbles-greece-furious-british-museum-loan-russia-elgin.
Loan to the Hermitage
The BM’s disturbing efforts to force the complete disassociation of the marbles from the monument reaches new levels of audacity with the recent back-alley loan of Ilissos, the personification of the river of the same name, to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Aside from the egregious diplomatic implications of loaning a highly contested piece of art to a country which is currently annexing the Crimea, committing numerous violations of international law, and facing severe sanctions by world powers such as the European Union, the loan serves to epitomize the BM’s campaign to propagate the myth that the sculptures are iconologically independent works. While MacGregor congratulates himself and attempts to pass off the loan as a convivial Hermitage birthday celebration, Ilissos, now twice divorced from his context, is left to sit in isolation. The loan of Ilissos definitively proves the museum’s utter disrespect for the monument; one cannot venerate the Parthenon while distributing its already-fragmented elements across the globe, bereft of any context. Such an act is a direct violation of the formal qualities of the Parthenon.
The debate is lengthy and convoluted; however, offering a methodology based on respecting the formal characteristics of the Parthenon is the first step to guiding the dispute towards progressive solutions. Placing the emphasis back on the significance and formal traits of the Parthenon is the proper method by which the debate must be continued. This approach upholds the grandeur of the Parthenon and affirms the realities of its design and purpose. In contrast, arguments that fail to take into account the formal artistic and archaeological qualities of the Parthenon deny its importance and refute its validation. Claims based on dubious acquisition documents, false assertions of ownership, and colonialist entitlement attitudes are mere distractions and have no place in progressing the debate and achieving a resolution. Aesthetic and archaeological integrity irrefutably negate any and all arguments against reunification, and if museum specialists, art historians and archaeologists, policy makers, and legislators work collaboratively through this paradigm, there is surely hope for repatriation of the sculptures.
Neils, Jennifer. The Parthenon Frieze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Palagia, Olga. “Fire from Heaven: Pediments and Akroteria of the Parthenon.” The Parthenon: From Antiquity to Present, ed. Jenifer Neils. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Smith, Helena. “Parthenon Marbles: Greece furious over British loan to Russia.” The Guardian. December 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/05/parthenon-marbles-greece-furious-british-museum-loan-russia-elgin. Accessed December 20, 2014.
“The Parthenon Sculptures,” The British Museum, 2008, http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures.aspx.
[i] I use the terms repatriation and reunification interchangeably. These terms are not intended to mean the physical rejoining of the sculptures to the Parthenon, but rather the return of the sculptures to Athens, Greece, for their inclusion in the Parthenon Gallery of the new Acropolis Museum.
[iii] Jennifer Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 257.
Glenna Gray is a 2014 graduate of Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA. She is passionate about researching art repatriation issues and the legal complexities that surround them. In her pursuit to gain knowledge in the field of cultural heritage preservation, she has worked with researcher Tess Davis from the University of Glasgow, assisting with research regarding the antiquities looting in Cambodia during the French explorations. Glenna recently completed an Honours Thesis on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures, and travelled to London and Athens to assess the museum displays, presentation authenticity, and educational outcomes of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon galleries. In fall 2015, she will begin a Master’s program at Rutgers University, for a further degree in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies. Her current research interest pertains to the diplomatic tensions between Cyprus and the Turkish occupying forces, and the implications for the state’s rich material culture.
- Bell Pottinger poll on the"Elgin Marbles". Caveat lector.
- Q & A with Eddie O'Hara
- An Affair without Ending: The Parthenon and its Sculptures
- Greek Ministry of Culture:Resolution 18GA 2014/40 passed at ICOMOS General Assembly in Florence, Italy
- BBC Sunday Morning Live debate November 2nd 2014: Should Britain return its historical treasures?