The Parthenon Marbles

The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.
The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.

When English Romantic poet John Keats saw the marble sculptures that once graced the frieze and pediments of the Parthenon in 5th century BCE Athens, this is the sonnet he wrote:

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagin'd pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship, tells me I must die

Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.

Yet 'tis a gentle luxury to weep

That I have not the cloudy winds to keep,

Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—

“The Elgin Marbles,” as they were known to Keats and to most of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, are no longer given that designation even by the august institution that currently houses them, The British Museum. Here is its official apologia for their being in London:

www.britishmuseum.org link

It is now more politically correct to call them “The Parthenon Marbles.” Even the British Museum feels that the very mention of the name of the titled “savior” or “plunderer” of the Marbles (depending on your point of view) is like yelling “fire” in a darkened theater.

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, received a permit of debatable validity from the then occupying Turkish government to remove the white Pentelic marble sculptures from the Parthenon, sited atop the Acropolis, while he was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He did so by cutting them into manageable pieces that could be transported back to his estate in Essex. The job occupied him and his workers for more than three years. The sculptures remained with Elgin until he sold them to the British government a decade later, in 1816. They have been housed as a landmark of Western Civilization in the British Museum ever since.

London is a world’s crossroads and keeping the Marbles there has constituted an ongoing argument made by and against the British government for over 150 years. In the BM page above, there is a brief history of the systematic pillaging and destruction of the Marbles over centuries (including a devastating gunpowder explosion in 1687), prior to Elgin’s mission. A special sky lit gallery to preserve and display the Marbles, named after its sponsor, Baron Joseph Duveen, was built early in the 20th century and it is here that generations of visitors have seen the Marbles in resplendent display.

England truly does consider the Marbles to be part of its national (and world) heritage. The BM is its self-anointed caretaker. Had the Marbles not been “saved” and put into its custody, they aver that they would today be in ruins.

The Greek government, however, has always claimed ownership and has fought continuously since its independence for recognition of its patrimony. This argument was ratcheted up to a higher level some years ago when internationally known Greek actress Melina Mercouri made the return of the Marbles a personal crusade even until her death. Celebrity opinion on “repatriation” is not a new topic. Even shortly after they were installed in the BM, poet Lord Byron wrote in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy moldering shrines removed

By British hands, which it had best behoved

To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,

And once again thy hapless bosom gored,


And snatch’s thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Critical mass in this explosive debate was achieved this past June with the long-awaited opening of the Parthenon Museum at the foot of the Acropolis. This hill and its temples is one of the cultural summits of Western Civilization for millions of annual visitors. As you walk through the glass-enclosed main gallery of the new museum, a re-creation of the frieze in a third floor gallery is sited in a way that affords a view up to the temple of the goddess Athena. The “Elgin Marbles” are mounted (in absentia) in their proper place—by high quality copies.

Additional debate on the question of “return” has been fueled by a re-issue of journalist/ provocateur Christopher Hitchens’ decade old book; The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?

Amazon.com link

Hitchens, who has never found a Kulturkampf he didn’t relish, makes an impassioned case for restitution in this July 2009 article for Vanity Fair magazine. As always, his scholarship is driven to convincing heights by his passion:

Vanity Fair article link

And taking it up to a personal level, Hitchens appears with scholar James Cano (author of Who Owns Antiquity?) on PBS News Hour:

www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog article link

Blogger Ira Artschiller concludes a piece he wrote by asking how would we feel if a US monument were re-located to a foreign country.

You probably have to go with the claims of Greece. It just feels those sculptures are of their marrow, that their removal was a sort of lobotomy, and Greece has a right of possession. The issues are loose, ambiguous: would a freestanding sculpture, say a Donatello, moved to another location, lose much of its aesthetic self? How are you to parse how connected to national origin a work of art is — how connected to the universal human spirit? Then again if they moved the Mount Rushmore monument to Nigeria, well, that would be strange.

Suddenly, despite all the academic arguments on both sides, when you can place the issue into your own cultural context, it comes alive. Imagine the Statue of Liberty being blow-torched in the middle of the night and the top half carted off—anywhere.

I clearly am not non-partisan here. But take a look at this wordless five-minute video of the construction of the Parthenon Museum with its repeated views of the Parthenon in the background—and tell me what emotion is called up for you:

And here is a video projection piece that was made for the opening night ceremony of the Parthenon Museum. It is projected on the walls of the structures:

The British Museum has long argued that keeping the Parthenon Marbles in London in an institution that can place Greek Classical art in the broader context of all of Western Civilization is the most compelling argument to maintain the status quo. Perhaps. During its heyday the British Empire was able to collect with impunity treasures from all over its far-flung colonial holdings. The BM houses the world’s cultural booty beyond any other national institution… Cultural looting is a predictable but weak argument for its continuity, it seems to me.

But, in an effort to defend its position, the BM’s official explanation, while praising the new Parthenon Museum, defends its own ownership of the Marbles as custodian for the world:

The new museum, however, does not alter the Trustees’ view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. The Trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece.

Further, the supporters point to the centrality of London as a world destination, that only there can huge numbers of people see the Marbles. Christopher Hitchens responds that if that were a valid argument, the Marbles should be re-located to Beijing.

In this next video, after a wonderful but brief tour of the Marbles, playwright Bonnie Greer, who is also a trustee of the BM, makes her case for the historical argument of leaving the Marbles in London. She explains that only here will they be seen as part of a cultural thread from Egypt and Assyria to the Renaissance and beyond.

www.britishmuseum.org video link

From an educational point of view this is a coherent rationale. But it does not address the passionate emotions roiling just below the surface for all Greeks and for many scholars and lovers of Hellenic art. Purely from this educational perspective, would not high quality plaster reproductions be almost as useful as the real marbles?

To be blunt here, to continue to possess the Parthenon Marbles based on this weak argument strikes many critics as nothing more than the desperate gesture of a jingoistic mortmain. Several surveys within the past decade have concluded that less than one fourth of the British people want to retain custody of the Marbles.

Several years ago I photographed a film with director Ken Kwapis on the Greek island of Santorini. The island is really one side of a huge volcanic caldera. It is famous for its steepness, its several cities clustered tightly against its sides. It was almost impossible to use a dolly here or sometimes even a tripod for the dialogue scenes. I knew that much of our work would have to be done by a very stable steadicam, as we were shooting in the anamorphic format.

In Athens, I met with a highly recommended Greek steadicam operator named Michael Tsimperopoulos. I saw his reel. It was stunning, not just in bravura terms but in its controlled choices. His work on our film was impeccable. Michael and I became quick friends and he has worked with me on other films.

When I was considering how to write this piece on the Parthenon Marbles, I asked myself “What could I possibly say as a concluding thought that is more than an outsider’s unengaged musings?” I decided to ask Michael for his perspective as a cultured Greek. Here is what he wrote:

“Asking for the marbles to come back is one thing. Refusing to return them is something else altogether, not even part of the same argument. For two hundred years, seven generations of people from all over the world, are requesting the return of the Parthenon Marbles. It is a long time for any fire to burn, for any struggle to endure, especially in our modern times….. Recently, I’ve been having this strong feeling that perhaps it is not the people who are asking for the Marbles back, but the Marbles themselves (that) have been crying out in despair all this time for their return to their homeland, their original place of energy and philosophical mysticism. At a certain point, every uprooted, every expatriated, every traveler, every Ulysses longs to return home…”

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