Just over thirty years ago, the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Victoria mounted a loan exhibition entitled Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum.
The superb catalog was compiled by Timothy Potts, then director of the National Gallery of Victoria (now director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, USA). “Ancient” included the Near East (“the cradle of civilization”) and Egypt as well as Greece and Rome.
Three decades later, the British Museum, in partnership with the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, has sent under another stunning selection of over 170 objects from its almost unrivaled collection in London, Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes which looks at sports, politics, theatre, music and war.
Again a superb accompanying catalog has been produced, the main text by the current Head of the Greek and Roman Department of the British Museum, Peter John Higgs, and with an introductory essay by Professor Alastair Blanshard of the University of Queensland , a former PhD student of mine and Dr Diana Burton from the University of Wellington, New Zealand.
I note that the Greek community in Canberra, the Greek-Australian media and the Greek-Australian leaders, even the Orthodox (Byzantine) priests, in the large Greek diaspora in Australia, support this exhibition. This is an important point for obvious reasons given the irredentist position on reunification versus the British Museum’s position on returning the stolen Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
I do not consider that everything the administrators of the British Museum do is always bad. Far from there! On the contrary, it’s what they don’t do, what they refuse to do, that – as they say – attracts me. So I have to “declare an interest”. I am currently Vice President of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM) and Vice President Elect of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS). (The BCRPM was not really the first national body of its kind – that honor goes to Australia’s Emanuel Comino. Both of these committees were originally inspired in the early 1980s by Greece’s Minister of Culture for time, Melina Mercouri, whose example and legacy indeed continue to inspire us all. )
The “R” in BCRPM originally stood for “restitution,” and that term is still often used in ongoing debates, but it is a legal term, and we at BCRPM and IARPS at the Like successive Greek governments, we have set our face against pursuing any legal route – that is, any legal action – towards reunification and therefore categorically prefer “reunification”. This (not small) question of terminology is particularly relevant in the particular British case, where the British Museum, the museum which holds the largest quantity of Parthenon sculptures outside of Greece, relies on the supposed legality of a Act of Parliament (1816).
In fact, neither the claim that Britain’s former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, acquired his loot “legally”, nor the claim that the British Museum owns what it owns. legally does not hold water. Just to be completely clear, finally, the “P” is also crucial: the Greek government is not asking for the return of ALL the “Elgin” marbles, i.e. all the sculptures that Elgin has removed and which are now in the BM, but only those which once adorned the Parthenon.
Since the mid-1980s, I have been heavily involved in this part-political, part-aesthetic, part-academic campaign: to reunite all existing members of the original Parthenon temple in Athens, where they originated in the sixth and seventh decades of the 5th century BCE. . The campaign, of course, did not begin in the 1980s, but rather in the second decade of the 19th century, almost immediately after the greatest act of “moving”, thanks to the efforts of the 7th Lord Elgin and his cronies. “Your looter,” thundered the philhellenic Lord Byron, “was a Scotsman.”
A commission of inquiry, set up by the British – or brutal? – government at the time, disagreed with Byron and sided with the former British ambassador to the Sublime Porte, agreeing to pay Elgin £35,000 in exchange for his handing over what he had ‘collected’ to be held in trust in perpetuity in the British Museum on behalf of the British nation or people. It is this Act of Parliament of 1816 under which the administrators of the British Museum shelter today in a feeble attempt to justify their attachment to what they now call the Parthenon (and no longer “Elgin”) marbles. For they have no other possible justification: even if there was cast documentary evidence that Elgin had received express official permission from the Ottoman ruler of Greece to do what he did in fact (which is not the case), they would still do it. using the context of a radically alien international order (the Napoleonic Wars) to lend false legality to a transaction that, by current international standards of cultural diplomacy, has no possible justification.
Another – and for some of us insurmountable – objection to the claims of the trustees of the British Museum is that since 2009 there has existed beautifully in Athens, almost within touching distance of the Acropolis, a new Acropolis Museum, of which the top floor was built as a gallery dedicated to the Parthenon. The key word here is “Acropolis”. The Parthenon ultimately derives its meaning from its original physico-cultural context. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Acropolis is considered in Greece as a “sacred” eminence. The gulf between the Parthenon exhibit in the Acropolis Museum in invisibly close proximity to the original building and that in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery is simply immeasurable.
But in addition to excluding the alleged claim to legality – always problematic in the field of international diplomatic relations anyway – we have on our side the overriding claim to ethical probity. Times change and customs change with them. Imperial or colonial force majeure does not cut the ice today in sensitive questions of cultural heritage such as these. It was in postcolonial France, and with particular respect for Africa, that the contemporary movement to restore to their original homes artefacts forcibly removed under colonial and imperial dispensations first gained momentum. magnitude. The Parthenon and its sculptures are a resolutely Euro-European issue, and moreover with a singularly political, that is to say democratic, dimension.
Of course, the democracy of the ancient Greeks was not ours: the Athenians, who invented a form of δημοκρατια, owned slaves and refused to vote for female citizens. But the notions of freedom and equality are equally fundamental both to their male-only direct democracy and to our inclusive representative democracy. This is what gives the call for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens its particular political importance: what is demanded of our British government is a gesture of generosity – a gesture which would be returned in return by the Greek government, if you will pardon the pun, prick. The Parthenon sculptures simply mean much, much more to the Greeks than to us in Britain.
And in case anyone further suggests that returning the Marbles would open the floodgates to requests for the ‘return’ of other of the 8 million artefacts currently held by the British Museum, let me be perfectly clear: we at the BCRPM and the IARPS are adamant that the Parthenon Marbles are a unique case, with no other implications. The proof? We don’t even ask for the return of the finest caryatid supporting pillar removed by Elgin from the Acropolis temple of Athena known as the Erechtheion, even though its sisters can now be seen to truly breathtaking effect in the new museum. from the Acropolis! It is therefore time for Hestia (see illustration) and her companions to be allowed to return home.
For more information on the ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes visit the NMA
British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM) @ www.parthenonuk.com
International Association for the Reunification of Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS) @ www.parthenoninternational.org
Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Senior Fellow at Clare College and AG Leventis Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. www.classics.cam.ac.uk/directory/paul-cartledge