Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interesting Post About Elgin Marbles

Here is an interesting post about the Elgin Marbles that was circulated on the Museum Security Network Listserv. The author previously wrote an interesting post about Greek Cypriot hypocrisy that was previously reported on this blog here:

Dear Dr. Opoku

For quite some time I have read with interest your postings on MSN and elsewhere and closely followed the heated debate on looting, illegal trafficking and restitution since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. Your opinion as to what is right and how the world should deal with cultural heritage appears to be very logical and clear, and in some cases I would certainly agree with your view. In the case of Lord Elgin’s actions, however, you are utterly wrong – either due to your ignorance of the facts or because your position does not allow you to perceive historic events from a scholarly, i. e. ideologically untainted, or even cosmopolitan point of view.

In fall 2007, I studied large parts of the correspondence between Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and his Italian agent in Athens, Giambattista Lusieri, as well as his correspondence with William Hamilton, Lord Aberdeen and all the others involved in the removal of parts of the Parthenon Sculptures at Broom Hall (where the Elgin-family archives are kept). And I am currently working these findings into a book.

I can assure you that the idea of removing the sculptures from the grounds of the Acropolis and from the ruined Parthenon itself was first raised by Lusieri in a letter to Lord Elgin dated 16 May 1801, and ever since Lusieri has repeatedly reported the willful destruction of parts of the ancient monuments on the Acropolis of Athens by members of the Ottoman forces that were stationed there.

I can also assure you that Lord Elgin provided all necessary funds possible (presumably from his wife’s bourse according to Susan Nagel in her well-written and entertaining book on Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin) to his agent, to enable him to acquire the necessary equipment and to hire the required work force to remove selected items carefully.

Based on the documentary evidence which I found, I came to the conclusion that Lord Elgin had his agents remove the specimens from the Acropolis in the early 1800s because he believed that doing so would preserve them from further destruction. His intentions appear absolutely honorable, patriotic and enlightened since he wanted to improve standards of British art and contribute to Britain’s greatness – aristocratic in the original meaning of the world (and not different from what the Marquis de Nointel wished to do for Louis XIV). I cannot see therefore what we gain from being judgamental and from constantly smearing the name of a historic figure whose achievement still felt today was to set-off the reception process of the Parthenon Sculptures. Without his will to have them removed – and to pay for it – the world would probably never have found out that they are, as Mary Beard once wrote, “worth quarrelling about.”

In my opinion – and based on my experience gained from working in a so-called source country – it would have been highly immoral for Lord Elgin, against his better knowledge to have left the Parthenon Sculptures on the Acropolis of Athens to the vagaries of time. It is therefore not a baseless argument to claim, that his actions helped to preserve some of the marbles from the Parthenon under better conditions than those that remained in Athens.

Similarly false is your assumption that “nobody except officials of the British Museum and their friends believe that the Parthenon /Elgin Marbles ‘are owned by us all, in trust for the world.’” As for your rhetorical “Tell this to the Greeks!” you might want to read Yannis Hamilakis’ The Nation and its Ruins. Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford University Press 2007), in which the author demonstrates how monuments from classical antiquity get monopolized by all sorts of people – but certainly not by the ones who created them. And then it would be interesting to know which UN- or UNESCO-resolution did actually demand the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, as you imply in your next paragraph. Have I missed something?

You obviously do not share the view that the large museums of the world, some of which have their roots in the 17th and 18th century, should keep their historically grown collections intact in order to continue the excellent and important work they have done so far if a modern nation state requests the return of some “unjustifiably taken object”. In doing so you seem to acknowledge that these collections also have holdings of “justifiably” taken objects. I only wonder who in your opinion is entitled to decide which of these items has been justifiably taken from source countries ages ago and which has not, and furthermore, what are the criteria for such decisions? Is your assumption not just as arbitrary as the arguments you claim to hear from those institutions that hold items of material culture in trust?

Claiming that the restitution of some works of art that have left their country of origin several generations ago to a current modern political construct would improve their impact on today’s world or undo old deeds is a fantasy. I must confess that I have always suspected, but could never get concrete proof, that the reasons for requesting the return of the Elgin Marbles by some politicians and scholars are more prosaic than academic, humanitarian or idealistic. I have also seen a lot of vanity-driven hypocrisy in this whole campaign: asking for the pieces in the British Museum but not for the ones in the Louvre, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Martin von Wagner Museum in W├╝rzburg, and so on. Where is the logic? What unification would one achieve? Why destroy one gradually developed ensemble of world culture that for the last 200 years has played and continues to play such an exceptional role in introducing people from every corner of this planet to the cultures of the world? In this respect I find your next claim quite disturbing: “indeed the whole world, including the majority of British citizens hope that the British Museum and the British Government will finally do what is morally and legally correct: return the Parthenon marbles to Athens!” (I love your exclamation marks). You may speak for yourself, but I seriously doubt that you should speak for the “whole world”, as I am inclined to believe that it is not only I who is convinced that the Elgin Marbles are fine where they are and that they should stay there – because the British Museum in its present form and history is arguably one of the most exciting and inspiring museums in the world and, as such, an exception.

I would also like to remind you that the Elgin Marbles were not looted, but left the Ottoman Empire with the approval of the then ruling authority, even if this appears unthinkable in today’s terms. Looting is something else. It is caused by two of mankind’s worst deficiencies: vanity and greed. It is this greed that leads to organized crime, which then leads to industrial-scale type looting of archaeological sites – and the destruction of archaeological data – for the financial gain of only a few. This greed also fosters corruption and hypocrisy among some of the responsible authorities in so-called source countries, while, when combined with vanity, it can sometimes lead to unwise and arguably unethical acquisitions by dealers, private collectors and museums alike. We may enter a moral discussion about the events of the past, but we cannot change the principal forces of history. What we can do, however, by accepting history as a man made sequence of events, is to do our best to prevent further mistakes on the “consumer side” and to minimize the damage done on the “producer’s” side. We should try to decrease the ongoing worldwide looting and loss of cultural heritage by educating the people living in source countries and by raising their awareness of what they lose when engaging in looting. In doing so, we make a clear distinction between current and recent looting and the sanctioned removal of ancient artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles, the Venus of Milo or the Great Altar of Pergamon. We should also acknowledge that the Elgin Marbles could only contribute so much to our understanding of the ancient world and the formation of Philhellenism which ultimately lead to the foundation of modern Greece, because they were brought to England in 1806. The British Museum assumed its responsibility and had a crucial educational role in this. It is therefore foolish, in an impulse of misguided post-imperial revisionism, to undermine one of the world’s oldest and greatest public collections, to request its dismemberment, and to continue wasting time, money and energy on demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, when there are many more urgent issues that desperately need resources and attention.

Marc Fehlmann
Department of Archaeology and Art HistoryFaculty of Arts and Sciences
Famagusta/ Gazimagusa, Northern Cyprus
Via Mersin 10, Turkey


Antiochian said...

restitution? One of the most ancient lootings of Egyptian artifacts was the Romans carting off several obelisks to Rome. Are the Italians on the verge of giving these back? What of the obelisks in London, New York and Paris? are these any less or more deserving to be returned because they were taken at later dates? When shall St Mark's in Venice disgorge back to Turkey the lions that were looted in the Fourth Crusade? The list goes on...

Wayne G. Sayles said...

If the removal of a cultural object from its place of origin is to be considered looting, regardless of the circumstance or prevailing authority at the time, then everyone ought to read the definition of cultural property in UNESCO 1970 to get a full appreciation of the scope of this debate. Ironically, Greece is just announcing this week that the country will provide financial and technical assistance to Iraq's museums (in exchange for an Iraqi monument to Alexander the Great, the biggest plunderer in the history of mankind). Who's kidding whom? It's all about special interests --archaeology included-- and the highly touted (and very subjective) ethics are simply a smoke screen.