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The Return of Cultural Artefacts

Alexander Herman

  1. 104 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub


The Return of Cultural Artefacts

Alexander Herman

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Debates about the restitution of cultural objects have been ongoing for many decades, but have acquired a new urgency recently with the intensification of scrutiny of European museum collections acquired in the colonial period. Alexander Herman's fascinating and accessible book provides an up-to-date overview of the restitution debate with reference to a wide range of current controversies. This is a book about the return of cultural treasures: why it is demanded, how it is negotiated and where it might lead. This debate forces us to confront an often dark history, and the difficult application of our contemporary conceptions of justice to instances from the past. Should we allow plundered artefacts to rest where they lie – often residing there by the imbalances of history? This book asks whether we are entering a new 'restitution paradigm', one that could have an indelible impact on the cultural sector - and the rest of the world - for many years to come. It provides essential reading for all those working in the art and museum worlds and beyond.

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Studi museali


The never-ending dispute: The Parthenon Marbles

If there is one restitution claim that outranks all others in terms of longevity, notoriety and sheer insolubility, it is Greece’s claim against the British Museum for the return of the ‘Elgin Marbles’. This was the unofficial term given in the 19th century to a collection of nearly one hundred large pieces of ancient sculpted marble, and many smaller ones, removed from the site of the Acropolis in Athens by men working under Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – the infamous Lord Elgin. Today it is more common to refer to them as the ‘Parthenon Marbles’, though even this term remains imperfect.1
For many decades, the sculptures have had a polarising effect. And in many ways they have come to encapsulate the global restitution debate: on one side can be found those who support the British Museum’s right to retain a great collection of ancient artefacts; on the other those who believe they belong back in Athens. The former camp includes a long list of British Museum directors, curators and British Prime Ministers; the latter includes poets, actors, lawyers, Greek Prime Ministers and Greek Ministers of Culture, and – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic world leaders like Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The arguments on both sides have been repeated, many of them unchanged, for over 200 years. Yet the dispute still remains far from resolved. Why is that?
It may seem surprising to begin an assessment of the current state of restitution by revisiting such well-trodden ground. But the more we learn from it, the more capable we will be of understanding just why these objects carry such weight: why they are fought over, what they represent to the two sides involved, and what possible resolutions might still exist. And from this we can develop a better sense of the issues at play in the larger restitution debate. Just about all restitution stories trace their points of reference, one way or another, back to Greece’s claim over the Parthenon Marbles. Only in understanding this impasse, from the point of view of Greece as well as from that of the British Museum, can we see if others are in the process of repeating the same mistakes. Are they able to learn from this most insightful example – and, more importantly, can they avoid repeating it?

A short history of the Marbles

The bulk of the sculptures at issue were first and foremost part of a single building, the Parthenon, the central edifice atop the Acropolis, constructed under the tutelage of Pericles during the heady days of Athenian democracy in the mid-fifth century BCE. There are three main types of sculpture: (1) the larger-than-life figures of Greek gods from the two pediments at either end of the building; (2) the square mythological scenes in high-relief from the outer rim of the building (known as ‘metopes’); and (3) the pieces of low-relief frieze that fitted around the building’s inner chamber depicting a procession of Athenian citizens. Construction of the Parthenon began in 447 BCE and was in large part completed in less than a decade, a rather incredible feat in its own right, with the final pediment figures being hoisted into place by 432 BCE. Since Pericles had to seek continued approval for his project before an assembly of Athenian citizens, this has often been referred to as the world’s first truly public building project.
The removal of the pieces by Elgin’s men some 2200 years later can in many respects be contextualised by the changes that had occurred in the intervening years. After beginning life as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the Parthenon later spent time as a church, then a cathedral, then a mosque, each time undergoing substantial structural changes that had an overall deleterious effect on the sculptures themselves.2 The worst damage came during a fateful siege of the city by the Venetians in 1687. At that time, the Republic of Venice was part of an alliance of European states trying to chip away at the Ottoman Empire, which since the mid-16th century had controlled Athens. With their cannons placed on the ancient ‘Hill of Muses’, the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis with over 700 shots, eventually hitting the Parthenon’s inner chamber, which was being used by the Ottomans as a gunpowder magazine. The ensuing explosion killed 300 people and blew much of the Parthenon to pieces. From that point on the structure was a ruin; and the sculptures that had withstood earlier mutilations by the Christians were either destroyed, severely damaged or lying scattered around the site.
Those scattered pieces were suddenly ripe for the picking, though the full harvest would take another 115 years to materialise. In truth, Elgin’s men were not the first to lay acquisitive hands on the prized pieces of the Parthenon. The Venetian general who had temporarily repulsed the Ottomans in 1687 had tried removing the largest of the remaining sculptures from high up on the pediment, but this had ended disastrously when the cord used to support them snapped and the pieces came shattering down. A Danish mercenary managed to acquire two small metope heads which he brought back to Copenhagen as an offering to his king. Later, the agent of a French ambassador took a piece of the frieze and a metope, which eventually found their way to the Louvre, where they remain to this day. But it would require a constellation of circumstances before a wholesale removal would be possible. And that constellation revolved around an ambitious young British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court.
The irony in the story of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ is that Lord Elgin himself had very little to do with their actual removal, though actions were taken under his command and for his ultimate benefit. His diplomatic posting in 1799 was to Constantinople, and he remained in the Ottoman capital while the first lot of sculptures was taken from the Acropolis by a coterie of artists and labourers in his employ. Athens at the time was a far-flung outpost of the Ottoman Empire, a town of some 4000 inhabitants. Elgin only visited Athens once during his embassy, and only briefly, a year into the project as a quick check-up on his workers before touring the Greek islands with his wife.3 He sent orders by distance (‘I should wish to collect as much marble as possible,’ he would write to his head contractor on one occasion4) and funded the entire operation. But the actual manoeuvring, arm-twisting and palm greasing was undertaken by Elgin’s agents on the ground.
The primary document which seemed to permit the removals was drafted by a senior Ottoman official in Constantinople in July 1801 and was addressed to both the governor (the ‘voivode’) and chief justice (the ‘cadi’) of Athens. This letter was immediately brought by Elgin’s chaplain and an Ottoman chaperone to the men in Athens and used by them to obtain access to the Acropolis, as well as certain other liberties. The document has often been referred to by the British as an imperial ‘firman’ (royal decree), though more recently this characterisation has been thrown into some doubt.5 Whether or not it was an official firman, it almost certainly had persuasive authority within the Ottoman system. An Italian translation of the document was made at the time for the benefit of Elgin’s agents and this translation is what remains with us today.6 Therein we see words that indicate an intention on the part of the official to command or exhort the recipients, one of whom was the highest judicial authority of the region, with phrases such as ‘act in conformity with’ and ‘in this manner you must conduct and comport yourselves’. The vagueness of some of its terms was then interpreted by the local governor in a manner favourable to Elgin’s men. One of these terms was an order to the recipient officials that the men not be impeded when attempting to take away ‘some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures’. Much ink has been spilled on the interpretation of that impenetrable phrase. How many pieces is some? Can it realistically imply the nearly one hundred items removed? And did it give the men a right to climb up and prise out a number of sculptures from the entablature of the building itself?
Whatever the answer to these questions, the fact that local officials did permit the removal of sculptures over a three-year period implies that some form of tacit acceptance was likely to have been given.7 Recent archival discoveries also confirm the point, demonstrating that subsequent permission for the removals had been approved by Ottoman authorities.8 The first is a letter written by the Grand Vizier, the head of the Sultan’s Court, in October 1802 requiring officials in Athens to continue supporting the work entrusted to Elgin’s men, implying that removals up to that point were condoned. The second relates to events that occurred some eight years later (1810–11) when 40 crates of marble were still at the port near Athens under Elgin’s name, waiting to be shipped to England. Documents from the Ottoman archive in present-day Istanbul reveal internal messages shared between the Grand Vizier and the Sultan, ultimately leading to an order being sent to Athens allowing the departure from Ottoman territory of ‘broken marble pieces and earthen pots decorated with figures’.9 With these discoveries, it now seems beyond doubt that the activities of the Elgin enterprise (both the removal from the Acropolis and the ultimate export) had the stamp of approval of the Ottoman authorities.
But surely that is not the final word. This is not simply a question of the strict legality of the removal. Compliance came at a cost, with records showing ‘gifts’ showered on officials during the period, and perhaps this petty venality can serve to undermine the legitimacy of the arrangements, if not legally then at least ethically? Besides, the Ottomans were foreign rulers of Athens. What legitimacy did they have to parcel away vital parts of ancient Greek culture? Did their 350-year rule over the territory (what some might call an ‘occupation’) really make them the legitimate authority of the time? What about the fact that within a decade of the final shipment of marbles leaving port, the Athenians would help jumpstart the Greek War of Independence by chasing the Turks out of the lower town and barricading them up in the Acropolis?
No matter which way we read it, there are valid arguments on both sides. This was not, after all, military spoliation – removal at the point of a bayonet. But at the same time it was more underhanded, more devious, the result of connivance rather than brute force. Some point to the permissions received from the Ottoman authorities as evidence of the removal being legal at the time, but the moral strength of this argument can at least be questioned when the Greeks themselves had no say in the matter. Not to mention the wanton bribery that was needed to ensure such a favourable outcome.10 Yet is there a valid claim for return when, at the time of the initial removal, Greece did not yet exist as a country, only becoming a recognised sovereign state some 30 years later?
Once again, questions. And none capable of easy reply. As classicist Mary Beard has written about the dispute, ‘Like it or not, the case on both sides is powerful; otherwise the dilemma would have been resolved long since.’11 Without seeking cut-and-dried answers, let us try instead to better understand the problem itself. Not to argue for one side or the other, but to ask why, after all these years, the dispute has persisted. Its continuation implies that the sculptures retain their value, even if that value is measured differently by each of the parties involved. There has never been a reconciliation over these ‘pieces of stone’. How is it that they still mean so much in a country like Greece? Or to the powers that be in Britain? What exactly inspires each side to push on in this, the world’s longest running cultural dispute?

Why they matter

By 1816 the British Parliament voted to acquire the sculptures from Lord Elgin, who was by this point heavily in debt from costs associated with the enterprise. The price paid was £35,000, approximately half of his purported expenditures, which included the infamous ‘gifts’ to the Ottomans. An Act of Parliament then ‘vested’ the collection in the Trustees of the British Museum, making them the owners, and the next year the pieces went on display at the museum. But Parliament was far from unanimous on the issue, with certain MPs saying the collection was the result of ‘spoliation’ and one in particular urging his fellow members to ‘exert ourselves to wipe off the stain, and not place in our museum a monument of our disgrace’.12 By then Elgin’s fellow aristocrat and provocateur Lord Byron had written stretches of scathing verse at Elgin’s expense in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18) and The Curse of Minerva (1811), lambasting Elgin’s actions for displacing ‘Athena’s poor remains’ from a shrine atop the Acropolis to the dull surroundings of London. It was from this point onwards that the controversy surrounding the collection truly began, and it has remained at the centre of the cultural debate in Britain ever since.
Though the first official claim by Greece to the Marbles was made diplomatically in 1983, there had been pleas for the return of pieces from the Acropolis ever since the dawn of Greek independence in 1832. A mere three years after Greece shook off the Ottoman yoke, the new King had requested the return of four pieces of frieze taken by Elgin’s men from the small Temple of Athena Nike at the edge of the Acropolis, which the Greeks were in the process of rebuilding. The request was denied, as was one a decade later for the return of several key pieces necessary for the reconstruction of the site as a whole, with the hopes that it could be restored to its classical grandeur.13 Then, towards the end of that century, a particularly vigorous debate on the topic took place in the British press, prompting the Athenian municipality to invite the ‘gracious government’ of Queen Victoria to return the Parthenon frieze.14 To these requests, as to those that came in the 20th century, the response of the British government – like that of the British Museum itself – has always been a hard ‘No’.
The arguments defending the retention of the Marbles have had to shift somewhat over time. While the initial view approved by the majority of the House of Commons in 1816 may have been that having the sculptures in London would ‘progress the fine arts of Britain’, as Lord Elgin would put it, and that Athens was ill-suited to properly display and care for such fine antiquities (whether under Turkish rule or not), both arguments would later be abandoned in the century and a half that followed. Instead, the position has consolidated around the strict legality of the taking and the importance of the pieces to the museum itself.15 Built into this second point is the refrain that has become all too familiar in restitution debates: that the return of these items would lead to countless future claims brought against museums the world over – the dreaded opening of the floodgates, ultimately leading to the emptying out of ‘encyclopaedic’ institutions like the British Museum.16
On top of the arguments to ‘leave well enough alone’, the museum trustees are faced with a rather strict rule forbidding them from permanently removing most items from the collection. This restriction extends back to the first Act of Parliament establishing the museum in 1753, which required that trustees preserve the collection ‘for publick use to all posterity’. The current governing legislation, the British Museum Act 1963, continues to prevent trustees from giving away, selling or otherwise disposing of collection items. There are several exceptions to this general rule, allowing the trustees to remove items that are either duplicates, unfit for retention or useless by reason of damage or deterioration. While there may be some debate as to whether the Marbles might be considered ‘unfit’ for retention (morally unfit, that is), it appears unlikely that the 25 trustees (more than half of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister) would ever exercise such discretion. For the sculptures to be permanently returned to Athens another Act of Parliament would be needed, just like those of 1753, 1816 and 1963, though of course with the precise opposite effect: to formally divest the trustees of ownership of the sculptures. But the UK government has always been opposed to proposing legislation of that sort.
This must of course be frustrating to the many Greeks who see this as a matter of vital import to their national heritage. To speak of ‘legality’, whether in relation to the original acquisition or the trustees’ inability to divest, must seem to them like pettifogging. It is not unlike a thief (so the argument goes) proudly clutching their loot while hiding behind rules of their own making. As we will see in other restitution cases, the law rarely comes to the victim’s assistance. On the contrary, the limits imposed by law most often serve to protect the possessor, whether it be an art dealer, collector, auction house or, as here, a museum. It therefore appears that any solution to the dispute would have to be found outside the strictures of the law.
One of the by-products of the sheer longevity of this dispute is that both sides have had plenty of time to rehearse their arguments. This means they are each able to claim morality for their side. For the Greeks this often boils down to ‘they were wrongfully taken, give them back’, while for the British Museum it can be expressed as ‘they were lawfully acquired, and today are essential to our collection’. Opposition framed along these lines – sometimes referred to as ‘positional bargaining’17 – usually means that neither is willing to give in, at least not enough to reach a resolution. Over the years, these stances have come to define the parties themselves: Greece as long-suffering victim, the British Museum as fussy reactionary. It is rem...


Estilos de citas para Restitution

APA 6 Citation

Herman, A. (2021). Restitution (1st ed.). Lund Humphries. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Herman, Alexander. (2021) 2021. Restitution. 1st ed. Lund Humphries.

Harvard Citation

Herman, A. (2021) Restitution. 1st edn. Lund Humphries. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Herman, Alexander. Restitution. 1st ed. Lund Humphries, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.