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Have the Greek Lost Their Marbles?

What the Black Pete is to the debate on racism in the Netherlands, the Parthenon, or 'Elgin', marbles are to the restitution debate in the study of cultural heritage. 'Ownership' is a complex topic in the study and management of heritage. Not many cases of heritage are as controversial as the marbles and have produced such a long-term global debate.
The Elgin Marbles. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)
The Elgin marbles are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures dating back near 2500 years, originally sculpted in Ancient Greece as part of the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. In the 1800s, the marbles were transported to the British Museum in London, under the supervision of Lord Elgin (Sánchez 2017). What motivated Lord Elgin to transport the marbles to England in the years 1801-1805, and whether he had the right to do so is  and has been for decades  open to extensive debate and public outrage

While many cultural heritages are located in their country of origin, the Elgin marbles are a different case. They are on display in a country very far away from their source. Arguments have been made for the return of the marbles, yet the restitution of certain artworks to their country of origin might depend on whether they are in fact best appreciated there. In the Elgin marbles case, it is rather difficult to assess this. John Boardman, a British art historian of Cambridge, underlines the importance of galleries of ancient art such as, in fact, the British Museum where the marbles are currently still on display. Museums give the general public the opportunity to visit, judge, and compare. After all, he argues, the marbles will not be put back on the Parthenon where no one can see them (Boardman 2014). On the other hand, it is not a shock that Greece feels some sort of responsibility and jealousy in the Elgin marbles case. Nation states generally consider themselves the protectors of heritage found on their land, as is illustrated by cultural anthropologist Michael F. Brown (Brown 2014). If cultural elements are torn from their original context, the Parthenon in this case, the change of context may change the meaning, which can have big consequences for the country of origin's ideas of national heritage. As a result, people who previously identified with this cultural heritage site or artefact may feel like they have fallen victim to unfair heritage projects (Logan 2012). Such feelings the display of the Elgin marbles in the UK clearly evoke.


Since Greek independence in 1832, the Greek government has been arguing for the return of the marbles to its ‘rightful place’. They claim that the marbles were not simply removed by a skilled archaeologist, as it is said by the British Museum, but stolen by a person who wanted them to decorate his mansion (Ward 2014). Some scholars even deny Elgin’s permission for the excavation works in 1800 (Sánchez 2017). Moreover, since the new and modern Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009, debunking the British argument of Greece 'not having an adequate exhibition place', makes a possible return to Greece increasingly realistic. While the British Museum is open to a permanent loan to the Acropolis, Greece does not see a loan as an adequate substitution for having their rightful property returned. The British Museum justifies their possession of the marbles as legitimised by the possibility the Museum provides for free exhibition to a global audience among treasures of neighbouring cultures. The Museum adds 'that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries' (The British Museum). So far, the Museum has declined mediation from UNESCO, citing 'UNESCO involvement not as the best way forward' (BBC 2015). Similarly, the Greek government is looking at international legal advice to seek help with approaching the UK (Smith 2016). 

In the meantime, the issue has found many international supporters for the return of the marbles, out of cultural rights, or the wish to see all marbles reunited at their original place of origin. Among them, notably, American Hollywood stars Bill Murray and George Clooney, who are both avid supporters of Greek restitution (Singh 2014). 

What makes this case extremely interesting, even after decades of debate, are the underlying questions surrounding 'ownership' of cultural heritage. What criteria decide where cultural heritage belongs? Is it the place of production? Place of excavation? Or, is it the person who ‘found’ them the 'owner'? Or, in light of the position of the British Museum and Brown (2014), is 'global heritage' better? What do you think? 

BY: NH, AD, MD, TB.

Sources:

BBC. "Elgin Marbles: UK declines mediation over Parthenon sculptures." BBC.co.uk. April 8, 2015.
http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-32204548.

Boardman, John. “‘National’ Heritage and Scholarship.” In Cultural Heritage Ethics, 131-134. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014.

Brown, Michael F. “The Possibilities and Perils of Heritage Management.” In Cultural Heritage Ethics, 171-179. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014.

Logan, William. “Cultural diversity, cultural heritage and human rights: towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 18, no. 3 (2012): 231-244.

Sánchez, Juan Pablo. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles” National Geographic History Magazine, March/April, 2017.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/03-04/parthenon-sculptures-british-museum-controversy/. 

Singh, Anita. "George Clooney and Bill Murray tell Britain: hand back the Elgin Marbles." The Telegraph.co.uk. February 11, 2014. 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/10631031/George-Clooney-and-Bill-Murray-tell-Britain-hand-back-the-Elgin-Marbles.html.

Smith, Helena. "Greece looks to international justice to regain Parthenon marbles from UK." The Guardian. May 8, 2016. 
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/08/greece-international-justice-regain-parthenon-marbles-uk.

Ward, Victoria. “Why are the Elgin marbles so controversial – and everything else you need to know.The Telegraph.co.uk, December 5, 2014.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11274713/Why-are-the-Elgin-marbles-so-controversial-and-everything-else-you-need-to-know.html.

Comments

  1. This is a perfect short article on The Elgin Marbles and great use of literature. Definitely makes me think about museums 'owning' a historical artifact. Personally I think in this case Greece should get the marbels back, as I don't see how the British museum can display the marbels better than a Greek museum can. Also I find a 'rightful owner' the country/region of production, but it can be safeguarded by another country when the artifact isn't safe in its ''homecountry'.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really enjoyed the blog post, mostly because you made use of the medium very well (with links and video etc) but also because the subject was intriguing.

    I think that around 1800 the so to say 'colonial spirit' was very much alive in the field of archeology, and that is the main reason the British Museum is currently filled with not only the example mentioned in this text, but also a lot of artefacts from ancient Egypt for example.

    I find it a bit troublesome that these artefacts are not on display in the local area where they were found, because that would add to the mystique and to my mind it just feels more 'right'.

    Another thing that I found quite interesting in your blogpost is that the Greek are not willing to accept a 'permanent loan' for these marbles. Is this just because of the pride that they are not willing to accept the artefact back based on this phrasing?

    MMK

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great article which gives us food for thought on where heritage belongs and who it belongs to using the Elgin Marbles as an example. It was well written, got straight to the point and easy to read, good use of pictures, videos and links. However, I have 2 minor questions?

    At the beginning of the Blog the very first line of the first the opening is highlighted in A reddish colour it did grab my attention but I was wondering if that is a standard way of highlighting in a blog and also was the part of the sentence highlighted really a outstanding point and that's why it was highlighted?

    The second thing is that the Mr. Moenandar had mentioned that when writing a blog it's also a good thing to more casually cite your sources rather than putting it in the militant academic fashion between brackets so it's more integrated into the writing which would makes it seem more accessible to lay audiences. I think this could have been do a bit more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Really nice blog post! Good example of the dilemma of the ownership of cultural heritage. I think, in this case, it's clear to say that the British 'took' a part of the Greek culture and displayed it in The British Museum, where the marbles don't belong. They should be displayed in Greece, where they were made. That would be the same if you took all the windmills out of The Netherlands and would display it in a museum in China. It doesn't make sense to not give the marbles back to Greece. There could absolutely be something as a 'global heritage', but that cannot be something which you took out of a country and display it in another country. I think the Greek Marbles are something inherent with the Greek culture and not with the world.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very interesting article! It shows very well how complicated debates about cultural heritage can be. In this example, I would choose the sides of the Greeks. Lord Elgin's reasons for taking the marbles to Great Britain are a bit obscure, if you ask me. Also, the marbles used to be in Greece for 2,000 years and it would be more legitimate if you display in the area where they used to be. It just makes more sense, I guess. Lastly, I think that the point that the museum makes about the heritage transcends national boundaries is valid, but I still think that even if the marbles are in Greece, they still can be a 'global heritage'. People from all over the world could still enjoy the marbles, only now in a more suitable habitat!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good job writing about such a sensitive topic! It seems to me that it is really hard to track down who's 'property' the marbles are, and whether it is theft that the British museum now has the marbles. My gut feeling says that these greek sculptures should be on display in greece, but it would perhaps be good to examine where this feeling comes from, and what arguments exist for this. It's also funny to note we still call them the elgin marbles, after the british man that brought them to britain :)

    EMvG

    ReplyDelete

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