FRESH REFUTATIONS TO OLD OBJECTIONS

FRESH REFUTATIONS TO OLD OBJECTIONS

The location of the Parthenon Marbles and their acquisition has to be rethought in the light of a different world. If you know a great deal about this subject we hope that what we have written here will continue to engage you, and if you know nothing at all, that this will help you find greater understanding.

It is said that Lord Elgin "saved" the Marbles from a worse fate by removing them to safety in Britain.

No, in fact, the Marbles that Lord Elgin did not chop off the Temple of Athena have survived remarkably well. What is more the marbles now in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens have been better looked after than those in the BM; they have been recently cleaned using the latest laser technology. By contrast, in the 1930s, some of the Marbles in London were very crudely and roughly scrubbed with wire brushes by ignorant and negligent curatorial museum staff, thereby ruining the patina.

It is said Lord Elgin "legally" took the Marbles and the British Museum subsequently "legally" acquired them from him for the nation in The British Museum.

The legality of Britain's acquisition of them will always be in doubt. The documentary proof is muddled. The fact that permission to remove them was granted by the Ottoman forces occupying Greece at that time undermines the legitimacy of Elgin's actions and thus by extension Britain's ownership. There are squabbles both over the exact wording of the original firman (permit, written in Italian) issued by the Ottoman Sultan and over Elgin's application of it on the ground, so the strict legality of Britain's ownership will always be doubtful.

It is said Lord Elgin's removal of the Marbles was archaeologically motivated.

Balderdash. His motives were entirely self-serving. His expressed intention was to transport the Marbles to his ancestral seat in Scotland. Good archaeology does not brutalise found objects, it prefers to preserve them and keep them in context (link to Lord Renfrew news statement).

It was said that the Greeks would be unable to look after the Parthenon Marbles properly.

How very patronising. The New Acropolis Museum (www.theacropolismuseum.gr) is the most beautiful museum, purpose-built to house their treasures and unarguably the appropriate place to display the Marbles. Its visual proximity to the Acropolis and the still standing temple they once were a part of enable visitors to best understand and appreciate their architectural and artistic significance.

It is said that it is impossible to restore the Parthenon and thus the aspiration towards 'reunification' is a false one.

The aspiration has never been to return the frieze, the pedimental sculptures and the metopes to the original building but rather to reunify them with those in The Acropolis Museum; there, they can be seen to have belonged once to the magnificent ruin, the Parthenon, which you can see plainly through the windows of the room in which the surviving pieces sit.

It is said the Marbles are better off in London where they can be seen in the context of other world cultures.

Not everyone is a historian or archaeologist. The average punter does not make meaningful connections between the objects held by encyclopaedic museums. The overwhelming evidence is that the majority of the public would prefer to see them returned to Athens. Check out The Guardian poll here.

It is said the Marbles belong to "the world", to all of us and should therefore be left where "everyone" can enjoy them.

We wonder who 'everyone' is. Now that Athens has a world-class museum for its marbles, there is no longer any justification for assuming that London is the best place for the people of the world to enjoy them. How exciting it would be to see those wrenched pedimental sculptures joined up at long last. And lest people think that The British Museum is the world's most popular, check out Trip Advisor's Top 10 Museums of the World, as voted by the public, right here. You might be surprised.

It is said if the British Museum ever agreed to return the Marbles to Athens, it would "open the floodgates", leading to the denuding of the world's encyclopaedic museums.

There is no hard evidence that museums would be denuded should the fragmented Parthenon marbles be returned to their other halves in Athens. For European and North American museums to suggest that they would be denuded is tantamount to admitting that part of their collections were dubiously acquired. They might not be wrong. Some items have already been returned and no great fuss has ensued.

In any event, the Parthenon marbles present a unique case in that the original building to which they belonged is still standing in plain sight. This makes the specific case for their return exceptional.

The great encyclopaedic or 'universal' museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York - ex-colonialists to a man - are all subject to laws laid down in internationally agreed legal instruments such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the safeguarding of cultural property.

It is said the Marbles are too important a part of the British Museum collection for the Trustees ever to allow them to be given up.

The most important part of the British Museum's work in the future, as we see it, will be the fostering of creative cultural partnerships with other nations. Returning the Parthenon Marbles would open a new chapter in cooperative relationships with Greece and enable visitors to the British Museum to see new objects loaned by Greek museums. The boot can be on the other foot if wisdom and common sense prevail. Refusal to return them is obstructive. A long overdue decision to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens would be seen as the British Museum leading the way in cultural diplomacy. The benefits would speak for themselves. How wonderfully exciting it would be for the world as a whole to witness the reunification of this peerless work of art?

At present the BM's Trustees ought be ashamed of their intransigence and should decide instead to join the modern world, instead of being an embarrassment to the nation.

It is said the Marbles can be "loaned" to Athens only if the Greeks agree to concede Britain's legal ownership of the sculptures.

Yawn. Attaching such a precondition to a dispute over cultural property is insulting and condescending, reminiscent of a colonialist approach to international relations. Intractable cultural disputes require both parties to adopt a spirit of generosity and to enter into discussions on equal terms and with no preconditions. This objection is at its best childish.

It is said "The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story." (Neil MacGregor, former Director, British Museum)


What story is that Neil? The Parthenon's story is the world's story, surely? By clinging on to the Marbles the BM does *not* take part in a positive and welcome 'story' of world civilisation, as MacGregor would have us believe, but in one of the nastiest and most outmoded and retrograde of *old* stories - that of colonialism and imperialism.

Yana Sistovari (Artistic Director of Thiasos Theatre Co): "The Parthenon marbles, under the Greek light, are an integral part of Athena's temple, still standing, encircled by the remarkable array of monuments - hallmarks of justice (the Areopagos), art (theatre of Dionysus), learning (Hadrian's library), and democracy (the Agora) - are enduring symbols of our western civilization. Ripped out of their context and set in the Bloomsbury gloom they are a sad symbol of pillage, war and colonialism.

Eddie O'Hara: "The one entity to which the Parthenon marbles indisputably and inalienably belong is the Parthenon, arguably the most significant of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They can never cease
to be integral elements of its architecture. Together they are one artistic entity, albeit no longer entire but still exceptionally so after 2,500 years. Such a separation of such an important monument is surely unparalleled. They can no longer be displayed in the open air, anywhere, but in Athens alone you have the nearest possible alternative. In the Acropolis Museum they can be viewed in direct line of sight with the Parthenon which can itself be part of the same visit. The case for their reunification is unique and overwhelming."

Christopher Hitchens: "The Acropolis Museum has hit on the happy idea of exhibiting its own original sculptures with the London-held pieces represented by beautifully copied casts. This has two effects: It allows the visitor to follow the frieze round the four walls of a core "cella" and see the sculpted tale unfold (there, you suddenly notice, is the "lowing heifer" from Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn). And it creates a natural thirst to see the actual re-assembly completed. So, far from emptying or weakening a museum, this controversy has instead created another one, which is destined to be among Europe's finest galleries.
And one day, surely, there will be an agreement to do the right thing by the world's most "right" structure."

Nadine Gordimer: "How parts of the Parthenon frieze came to be in England in the first place is an example of imperial arrogance manifest in marble. 'Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set' -
not content with claiming sovereignty over other peoples' countries, the British Empire appropriated the art in which ethos, history, religious mythology, the fundament of the people is imbued."
"Restitution [we don't use this word] now, in the twenty-first century, is on wider (appropriately) than legal grounds, grounds of dishonesty in colonialism justified as the acquisition of art." "On
any criteria of ability, facility to preserve and display their own heritage of great works of art as their importance decrees, Greece has created a claim incontestably unmatched. The Parthenon Gallery in the New Acropolis Museum provides a sweep of contiguous space for the 160-metre-long Panathenaic Procession as it never could be seen anywhere else, facing the Parthenon itself high on the Sacred Rock. But there are gaps in their magnificent frieze, left blank. They are there to be filled by an honourable return of the missing parts from the British Museum. Reverence - and justice - demand this."

Stephen Fry: "We are discussing a specific part of an existing building, which we now know can be properly and professionally curated and displayed. Humans have will. We can go down a path and then turn left or right, or turn right round. Legislature is, perforce, nuanced and (we trust) skilfully drafted precisely so as to introduce regulation with the minimum loss of wider rights and liberties. "Going down the path" of the return of the Elgin Marbles need not be fatefully precedential.
We could decide to let it not be. Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for its return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more.
And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right."

George Clooney: "It would be the right thing to do."

Bill Murray: "England can take a lead on this kind of thing...."If [the marbles] were all together, the Greeks are nothing but generous – they'd loan it back every once in a while ... like people do with art."

Dr Tom Flynn: "...appreciate why right thinking people continue to be appalled by Elgin's wilful desecration of a beautiful ancient building."

The Parthenon Marbles - or more precisely, the Parthenon Sculptures - are not freestanding works of art but integral architectural members of one of the most magnificent and best-known monuments in the world: the Parthenon. It is the biggest building on the Acropolis of Athens and was designed and built by the architect Iktinos and the sculptor Pheidias in the 5th c. BC. It was erected to celebrate the victory of the Athenian Democracy that encouraged the creation and development of
all the arts as well as of politics, philosophy, theatre and even science as we know them to day. So, the Parthenon is the celebration of the achievements of free, democratic people and for that reason it is an important symbol to the whole world. It is not the role of museums to rewrite history. The Parthenon Marbles are integral to the story of the Parthenon, one of the finest cultural achievements bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks.

It is our view that we wish to see a beginning of a more frank conversation between the two museums, Athens and London. Why does the BM not leave a deliberate space to indicate the missing Athens pieces? The Athens Museum has had the honesty to indicate what is missing.

The Duveen Gallery's display of the Parthenon marbles is a disgrace - see both Christopher Hitchens's book and Mary Beard's. The Gallery is of the same dimensions as the Parthenon building - the self-serving (Sir Joseph) Duveen insisted on that as a condition of his 'gift' of £1m. But their per cent of the frieze is displayed so as to give the false impression that it's complete. The frieze is moreover displayed on the inner walls of an interior room, filled with the dim grey light of Bloomsbury.

The New Acropolis Museum by contrast, displays their per cent the right way round, bathed in the Attic light pouring through the huge windows that face directly on to the desecrated original building, standing bereft but upright on the Sacred Rock.

More co-operation and frankness between the two museums is long overdue, in fact 200 years and counting.

BCRPM/December 2017
www.parthenonuk.com

Chairman of the BCRPM: Dame Janet Suzman , Vice-Chair; Professor Paul Cartledge

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