The Parthenon Sculptures: Elgin's 200 year old crime
A tale of duplicity, colonialism and stubbornness
by Dr Will Sawyer
On June 20th 2009, the new Acropolis Museum in Athens will open, demolishing at a stroke the main argument against the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece: that Greece is incapable of looking after them. The new museum is already being praised as one of the greatest and most innovative facilities of its kind anywhere in the World.
I know this is a Symi-based site, but I hope you’ll excuse me for taking this opportunity to talk about what is arguably the single biggest cultural issue in Greece.
If I’m really lucky, you’ll read this and be far better informed about the issue than you were before, and maybe a little surprised too; it is a tale full of duplicity, colonialism, and downright stubbornness, complete with theft, bribery and cover-ups.
For some of the 90s, I used to work close to the British Museum in London and would regularly go inside, spending most of my time among the Egyptian, Roman and Greek artefacts. The most important part of the Ancient Greek collection is the Parthenon Sculptures (crudely referred to as the “Elgin Marbles”) together with many other sculptures from other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens.
Included among these is one of the original six Caryatids, those columns that are shaped like women which have been copied the World over through the centuries. She stands in what feels like a back room and is often missed by visitors to the Museum. Unlike her five sisters who were behind glass in the old Acropolis museum in Athens, she stands free to be pawed and touched by whoever passes her by. During one of my lunchtime visits to the museum, I paid her my usual respects, but this time I found her with a large blob of chewing gum stuck on her back. Feeling indignant, I took pen to paper and wrote to The Independent, my favourite British newspaper, complaining of the poor way that the Museum protected its artefacts. The newspaper printed my letter.
On the occasion of Tony Blair’s second election victory, I wrote again to The Independent expressing the hope that he would allow the Sculptures back to Greece in time for the 2004 Olympics, imagining what a wonderful act of friendship that would have been. My letter coincided with an announcement by Tessa Jowell, the then Culture Secretary, that the Sculptures were staying put, echoing exactly her predecessor, Chris Smith, who had made a similar announcement within days of Blair’s first Victory in 1997.
With the eloquence of the arguments for their return, and the emptiness of those against, I’ve come to believe in the certainty that the Sculptures will one day return to Athens, and that it will come within my lifetime. I await that day, that will be so full of joy for the Greek Nation, with heart-fluttering anticipation.
Many people who visit Symi arrive or depart via Athens, and they are the richer for having done so; it is a wonderful city, one of the greatest in the World, not at all the smog-choked, filthy hole that many believe, but the capital city of a proud, ancient country with a wonderful culture and history. While the vast majority of the sprawling metropolis is modern, it is the ancient heart of the city that draws in the tourists, and the greatest attraction of all is the citadel of the Acropolis and the temple that crowns it, the Parthenon.
It was built in the middle of the 5th century BC at the order of Pericles to replace an older temple that had been destroyed by the Persians during the wars of the previous 50 years. In the heart of the temple stood a colossal statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos (Parthenos is the greek word for “virgin”) in ivory and gold by the sculptor Pheidias, whose later Statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Over the next two thousand years, Athens was occupied or attacked by the Spartans, Macedonians, the Romans, the Germanic Heruli and Visigoths, the Slavs, the Crusaders, the Byzantines and the Turks. The Parthenon itself was converted into a church and later, a mosque, with the Statue of Athena ending up transported to Constantinople where it is thought to have been destroyed in a city riot some time after. In all of this time, the temple itself remained relatively unscathed; if you had visited Athens in the early decades of the 17th century the main change in the Parthenon from antiquity would have been the addition of a minaret.
The Parthenon has, the Greeks say, been wounded twice. The first of these wounds occured on the 26th of September 1687 during the siege of the Acropolis by a Venetian-led force. A blast from one of their cannons scored a direct hit on the temple, igniting the ammunition dump that lay inside, blowing away a huge section of the centre of the building. When the Venetians took control of the Acropolis, the looting of the temple began and much more of the building, including all its roof and many of the columns on the southern side, were demolished.
The Venetian general in charge, Francesco Morosini, enamoured of the largely intact group of sculptures on the western side of the temple, decided to take the best of them to Venice as a trophy, but during their removal, they fell and the whole group shattered. Some small fragments of them ended up in Paris, Venice and Copenhagen among other places. When Morosini withdrew his forces the following year, he left much of the Parthenon a heap of rubble, returning to Venice and subsequently being elected Doge, the leader of the Serene Republic.
The second wound to the Parthenon is the one that Greece considers the more grievous and it remains unhealed to this day. The act was committed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Turkish authorities occupying Greece. In 1801, Napoleon’s forces were defeated by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in Turkish-occupied Egypt, and the Ottoman Sultan in Athens, aware that the British had saved the Ottoman Empire, was well disposed to accept the offered bribes and turn a blind eye to Elgin’s corruption of his office when he began to strip the Parthenon of its remaining sculptures, intending them, it is often said, as garden ornaments for his Scottish estates.
Over the next eight years, the Parthenon was raped of its finest art and the rape was a brutal one. During the removal of the sculptures, Elgin was told that many of them would have to be cut into pieces before removal and that considerable damage would have to be inflicted on the structure of the building to get them down. Accounts of the day describe how the temple was attacked with saws and picks to hack free the sculptures, with several being destroyed in the process.
The sculptures eventually ended up in Britain though Elgin, however, was never to enjoy them, being forced to sell them to the British Government to pay off debts. The Parthenon Sculptures removed by Elgin are now in the British Museum in London.
Since 1983, a great restoration of the Parthenon itself has been slowly continuing, using new marble from the same quarry that the original stone came from. The temple will not be restored to the pre-1687 condition, but much of the damage of the explosion will be reversed
Why aren't they back? The Arguments for keeping them in London
#1: Incompetence, Snobbery, Lies and Cover-ups
Elgin’s removal of the sculptures did not go un-noticed outside of Athens even at the time. The damage that his workers were daily inflicting to the greatest monument of Greek Antiquity was extremely controversial, with the poets Shelley and Byron the most notable of his critics, labelling him a “dishonest and rapacious vandal” among other things.
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they lov’d;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d
By British hands, which it had best behov’d
To guard those relics ne’er to be restor’d.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they rov’d,
And once again thy hopeless bosom gor’d,
And snatch’d thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr’d.
Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage”
The Ottoman overlords in Athens had been indifferent to the Temple since the explosion of 1687 had rendered it useless to them, allowing it to decay even further with marble taken for use in the construction of other buildings. When Elgin arrived on the scene, the motive he gave for his theft was that it was just a matter of time before the sculptures were destroyed and that he was saving them for posterity. The vast damage he did to the temple removing the sculptures far outweighed the benefits of the conservation he tried to convince others that he was engaged in, and he undoubtedly knew this, sly manipulator that he was. The practice of plundering artefacts is now often referred to as “Elginism”, while the claim often given by looters, that they are rescuing them from further damage has come to be known as “The Elgin Excuse”.
The argument has, however, persisted down the years and is one of the four main arguments given against the return of the sculptures to Greece: if Elgin hadn’t removed them and brought them safely to Britain, they would have since suffered two hundred years of atmospheric damage and would be in a far worse state than they are today. This argument was, for many, unarguable. How could the sculptures possibly have fared worse during 200 years in a museum gallery than they would have done during 200 years in the air of Athens, so filled with smog as it was for many decades in the 20th century?
The initial reaction of the British to the Parthenon Sculptures (or “Elgin Marbles” as they were beginning to be called) was mixed. The artistic value was not in doubt, but many considered them more than a little…dirty. The renowned physicist Michael Faraday was one of those called in to try to clean them up: could he not restore them to their beautiful pristine white state? After washing them gently to start with, which removed the worst of the dirt, Faraday proceeded to scrub at the surface with coarse grit and, when this failed, he applied nitric acid which ate away at the surface causing more damage in a few minutes than many decades of acid rain. Fortunately, Faraday’s experiments, which were a complete failure, were only on one small part of the sculptures.
In the 1850s, the museum produced mouldings of all of the marbles, enabling plaster copies to be produced. The casting process, however, caused further damage to the sculptures. In 1858, the British Museum was informed by the person in charge of the conservation of the Sculptures that:
“I think it my duty to say that some of the works are much damaged by ignorant or careless moulding (with oil and lard) and by restorations in wax, and wax and resin. These mistakes have caused discolouration. I shall endeavour to remedy this without, however, having recourse to any composition that can injure the surface of the marble.”
Fortunately for the Sculptures, further attempts to “clean” them were abandoned for eighty years. In 1937-38, a new gallery (the one in which they presently reside) was paid for by Lord Duveen to house the Sculptures. Joseph Duveen was an extremely wealthy man who had funded numerous galleries all over the World, a crooked art dealer who ‘flogged optimistically attributed paintings to gullible American multi-millionaires by the truckload’.Duveen (later 1st Baron Duveen of Millbank) had so much wealth and power and the poor museums found it a constant temptation. He could bribe and buy his way into any institution he wanted, and the museums would often override their ethical concerns for the cold, hard cash he offered. For the grand opening of Duveen’s new gallery in the British Museum, he wanted everything perfect and, having looked at other sculptures, he wanted those from the Parthenon to appear the same: clean and white. Not for Duveen was the natural honey colour that Pentelic marble acquires over the centuries, and it may even be the case that the museum knew that Duveen’s proposed cleaning job was a mistake from the outset, but were just too scared to say “no”.
Over the next few months, the surface of all of the Scupltures was scraped off with iron tools and carborundum abrasives, with much of the detail destroyed. The marble underneath, while indeed white, had been exposed by the removal of as much as 2.5 mm of the surface of the sculptures. The destructive “cleaning” job perpetrated by Lord “Cultural Criminal” in London was hushed up and hidden until as late as 1998 when it was finally uncovered by a Cambridge historian. Eventually, the British Museum owned up with the Deputy Director of Greek Antiquities saying:
“The British Museum is not infallible. It’s not the Pope. Its history has been a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up, and the 1930s cleaning was a cock-up.”
It was hardly a fitting comment of the Museum’s appalling failure to care for arguably its most valuable artefacts.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the British Museum was recently forced to release documents detailing the history of damage done to the Parthenon Sculptures while in their care: a schoolboy broke off part of the leg of one of the centaurs in the 60s, a falling skylight damaged one of the main pedimental statues a few years later, and vandals gouged four lines in the back of another. In 1970, somebody carved their initials in the thigh of one of the main Sculptures. Despite all of this, the Sculptures still remain free to be touched by visitors to this very day.
Elgin took the best of the Sculptures, and those that he left in Athens (about half of the whole collection) remained on the building for the great part of 200 years, enduring the worst of the Athenian pollution. The more important Sculptures were removed in the 1990s out of fear of further damage. Any cleaning of the Sculptures that was done was minor, limited to the removal of surface salt crust and soot. It was not until 2008, that a new technique was applied using a mixture of ultra-violet and infra-red lasers to preserve the natural colour of the Sculptures. The results, applied to 20 sections of the frieze, have been a great success. Far more detail can be seen on these sculptures than on any in the British Museum after their disastrous cleaning attempts, including even chisel marks left by the sculptors themselves.
With the results from Athens, the general consensus appears to be that the Sculptures that Elgin stole would now be in a far better condition had he left them where they were on the Parthenon.
#2: “Ya, ya, ya, you can’t make us!”
The second of the main arguments for the retention of the Sculptures in Britain is a simplistic one: they were obtained legally and so they are rightfully owned by the British Museum. The writer Christopher Hitchens sums this up as “Ya ya ya, we’ve got them and you can’t make us take them back!”
That the Sculptures were looted from Greece while it was under occupation seems not to matter to the British Museum in the same way that the looting of artwork from countries occupied by the Nazis, or of Aboriginal remains in Australia does. Hitchens further summed up this whole argument:
“We can’t live with this embarrassment. I’m surprised the Greeks aren’t ruder about it. Even if they say ‘Thank you, you rescued our property from the fire next door, you looked after it while our house burnt down, the fire was our fault’… that doesn’t mean we own the stuff. You wouldn’t put up with anyone saying ‘Oh well, yeah, thanks I guess I did look after it – in fact it’s mine now.”
#3: Deliberate Deception
The third main argument given for keeping the Sculptures in London can be summed up as “if we give the Sculptures back, then we’ll have to give everything else back too and all the museums will be empty.”
The Greek Government has long dismissed this argument as disingenuous as it has offered the British Museum the loan of many other antiquities to “fill the gap” left in its collection after the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece, including a complete copy of the sculptures in London together with a copy of those in Athens. This addition would make the display in London more informative and complete, rather than less so.
The “empty museums” argument, so often pedalled by the “we’re keeping them!” campaign appears as nothing more than a deliberate deception. Unfortunately, many still swallow it whole.
#4: Absurd and Illogical
The next argument is that more people would see them there than in Athens, about three times as many given recent visitor numbers.
The absurdity of this argument is quite easy to see if you take it to its logical conclusion; to maximise the number of visitors seeing the Parthenon Sculptures, the Greek Government should send all the sculptures that remain in Athens to London…and why not dismantle the Parthenon and send that to London too so that people can see it with all it’s sculptures together.
The number of visitors is not a factor that should ever be used to site a museum; and this is really quite obvious. Should the Museum of the Holocaust be in Berlin or should it be in Beijing, where it would get more visitors? Should the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, housing the Tutankhamun collection be in Cairo, or in Tokyo with its greater population? Artefacts of great cultural importance, and the Parthenon is undoubtedly one of these, should remain in the place where they are relevant, and not be removed in any great part (as the Parthenon has been) to a foreign land, far distant, where they are out of place.
To quote Hitchens again:
“To hear some people utter, one might suppose that the Parthenon Scupltures would disappear from view if they were returned to Greece. While all unawares, it sometimes seems, the British government and people are being offered the opportunity to perform a noble and even beautiful act.”
“The Parthenon sculpture is like a marvellous canvas arbitrarily torn across, with its depth and perspective and proportion summarily abolished. This is why, however long the debate should last, there will always be those who rebel against the disfigurement and who long to see it undone.”
#5: Not an argument
I said above that there were four main arguments for keeping the Sculptures in London, yet here I present a fifth. No, I’ve not been taking lessons from the “we’re keeping them” campaign in deliberate obfuscation, but find the fifth argument, which is the newest one to arrive on the scene and the one being so actively pushed by the British Museum itself at the moment, is not really an argument at all. It goes as follows: The British Museum is one of just a few museums in the World which has an impressive collection from all over the World. Visitors can come and see the whole breadth of World History laid out before them, and because this is so valuable, we need to keep the British Museum Collection intact.
I think that when this non-argument is given, it should be continued as follows: If the Sculptures return to Athens, they’ll just be put in a museum which ONLY has Greek things in it…and just things from one hill in Athens at that! How limiting! Greece is really selfish in wanting its single most prized artefacts back…can’t they see that the British Museum’s educational value is far more important! Etc... etc..
If you ever hear this non-argument, bursting with its colonial, Empire-days, ya-ya-ya sentiment, please do treat it with the contempt it deserves, for it sounds like nothing more than barrel bottoms being scraped.
After this brief journey around the contentious affair of the Parthenon Sculptures, I hope I have persuaded even a few of you that the case for the return of the Sculptures to Greece is a good one. If you remain unconvinced, please read more about the subject…or better still, visit the new Museum in Athens.
In the past months, as the new museum prepares to open, other museums and private collectors in Switzerland, Sweden, Italy and the Vatican have returned small fragments of the Sculptures to Greece, with each return granted a Presidential welcome and effusive gratitude. It is hoped that soon, the small parts of the Sculptures in Copenhagen and the Louvre will be returned as well, keeping up the pressure on London to complete the reunification.
If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, the majority of the British people are now with Greece in wanting Elgin’s 200 year-old crime put right..
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