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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Arts & Letters

A Visit to the British Museum

With less than two full shopping days left before Christmas, London’s streets were crowded, but this did not mean that visitors were not also streaming into the British Museum. About 200 of them were in the Parthenon galleries at noontime, admiring the exhibits. One could catch snippets of Greek being spoken, though none of it reflected a Christmas spirit. A young woman muttered audibly, “Po, po, tsantila pou me pianei edo mesa,” a phrase that can be loosely translated as, “Jeez, does this place tee me off?!”

Museum exhibits normally provoke feelings of admiration and awe, or at least curiosity, among visitors. A visit to the British Museum, however, does much more than that. Thanks to a long-running campaign to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, most visitors are evaluating Lord Elgin’s plunder of the Parthenon in 1801, and the British Museum’s self-serving refusal to return these sculpted masterpieces, as much as they are measuring their esthetic worth.

And on this day, Greeks are not the only out-of-towners registering disapproval of the way these particular exhibits found their way to London at a time when Britannia ruled the waves. A young boy, admiring a sculpture of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, asked his father whether these people had lived in England. The answer, in the unmistakably flat and elongated vowels of Yorkshire, was short and to the point. No, this sculpture came from Greece, and Englishmen who visited there long ago brought these pieces back as “sou-ve-niiirs.”

Greece recently stepped up its campaign to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles by requesting to borrow them for exhibition during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The British government turned down that request, which was made by Greek minister of culture Evangelos Venizelos during an official visit to London last November. The Greeks then tried to appease the British by supporting a move by 18 of the most powerful museums in Europe and the United States designed to protect them from claims such as those made by the campaign to return the Parthenon Marbles. In a transparently opportunistic move, Greece declared that it supported the concept of museums holding on to artifacts obtained in the past except in the case of those taken by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis (see Trouble In River City, December 18, 2002).

  At the British Museum, there is very little evidence of the provenance of the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon’s friezes and metopes. Some labels under exhibits that are fragments of a whole helpfully explain that the rest of the piece can be found in Athens. A sign informing visitors that they can rent a recorded commentary on the contents of the Parthenon Gallery lists the languages in which it is available. These include, not surprisingly, English, French, German and Italian, as well as Japanese, acknowledging the thousands of Japanese tourists who visit London every year. This range of languages is available in several other British exhibitions, but what makes this one special is that it also includes a Greek-language commentary, a silent admission that this exhibit draws an unusually large number of Greek visitors.

There is no explicit reference, however, to the growing controversy over the marbles on the premises of this venerable museum. That would be beneath the dignity of the institution that proudly, if subjectively, describes itself as “the best-known museum in the world.” Instead, it focuses on loftier topics, such as the commemoration of its 250th anniversary in 2003.

Yet one can spot some clues pointing to the Parthenon Marbles’ scandalous acquisition, and even perhaps to how the future of the controversy will unfold. Among the many scholarly and coffee-table volumes sold at the museum’s bookstore is William St. Clair’s Lord Elgin & the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, which is the most authoritative study on the subject. It first appeared in 1967 and is now in its third edition.

In this book, St. Clair, professor at Trinity College, Cambridge University, offers a scholarly as well as readable account and indictment of the plunder of the Parthenon Marbles. His study discredits the two main arguments used by those who oppose the return of the sculptures. The first is the proposition that Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman empire, legally removed the artifacts after having secured the sultan’s approval through a firman. Unlike some supporters of restitution, St. Clair does not question the sultan’s sovereignty over Athens at the time. Instead, through meticulous research, he shows how Elgin reinterpreted the firman to suit his purposes and thus augmented his manipulation of the sultan’s name with bribes and threats.

The second argument demolished by St. Clair is the arbitrary and arrogant claim that the British Museum took loving care of the marbles and protected them from what would have been certain destruction (presumably at the hands of barbaric non-Englishmen). Culminating in the revelation that the surface of the sculptures was seriously damaged in the 1930s when it was scraped clean in order to restore what their custodians wrongly imagined to be their original whiteness, St. Clair offers a catalogue of mistreatment suffered by the sculptures in British hands. The next edition will surely discuss an incident reported in the London Times in December 2002 in which a reporter posing as a museum intern witnessed the mishandling and destruction of ancient Greek pottery in the museum’s preservation rooms.

Beyond all that, however, this study does something even more useful: it reminds us that the context shaping the understanding of cultural property and Western appropriation and exhibition of artifacts can change dramatically over time. The author states that those promoting the status quo are quietly abandoning the older imperialist arguments for denying restitution and are focusing on the “slippery slope argument,” namely, questioning where one draws the line in returning artifacts.

  St. Clair is also critical of the UNESCO convention that supporters of the return invoke, since it assumes that national governments can claim exclusive right to cultural property within the territorial confines of a nation-state. The national-rights argument, he suggests quite correctly, has a hollow ring in the present era. What he and many other experts consider to be the most valid argument, with the greatest support currently, is the restitution of different parts of ancient monuments and artifacts in order to restore the original integrity of the respective creation within its original environment. A layman only has to catch a glimpse of the depressing grayness of the British Museum’s Parthenon galleries to begin to appreciate this point.

Yet the most telling point made by St. Clair is that not only are the terms of the debate shifting, but so are its participants. This is a debate in which public opinion is becoming active and overshadowing the role of nation-states and governments. Advocates of the Parthenon Marbles’ restitution are focusing their efforts on mobilizing public opinion, and there has been a proliferation of conferences and public meetings in which a range of specialists and laypersons have debated the issues and principles relating to the marbles.

Citizen-based organizations have been prominent in the campaign in the United Kingdom, including the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles ( and Parthenon 2004 (, an organization that resembles an American lobbying group. Their influence on British parliament and public opinion is not only widely acknowledged, but has obliged the supporters of the status quo to take notice. In an effort to burnish its scholarly credentials, the British Museum went as far as holding a conference on the “cleaning” of the marbles in the 1930s, reported in St. Clair’s book. The two-day event proceeded smoothly until the end, thanks to a combination of academic decorum and British reserve. Tempers finally flared just before the conclusion, however. St. Clair was disinvited from the final dinner and Ian Jenkins, the British Museum’s Parthenon “specialist,” interrupted the Greek press attaché six minutes into his remarks, accusing him of “hijacking” the conference.

While the long-term effectiveness of non-governmental organizations remains to be seen, the traditionally dominant role of governments in administering museums and determining issues of cultural property is eroding. Next to losing its monopoly role in this area, the British government appears less willing to underwrite the considerable financial costs involved in running British museums. In 2001, Tony Blair’s government decided that admission to museums in the country should be free, but refused to counterbalance the loss of income through financial aid. This, in turn, has led to press speculation that the British Museum may contemplate loaning some of its exhibits, including the Parthenon Marbles, for the right price, drawing furious denials by museum authorities.

The question of money, however, will not go away. Signs at the museum’s entrance invite visitors to make the equivalent of a $5 “voluntary” contribution, but those entering two days before Christmas were all bypassing the collection boxes. Meanwhile, press speculation about the museum’s finances continues. Indeed, the specter of economic need might soon haunt the British Museum and force a radical rethinking of its stubbornness over the Parthenon Marbles. Its 2003 desk diary, selling for almost $20 at its bookstore, reminds us that Karl Marx was one of the many distinguished users of its reading room. He obtained his first reader’s ticket in June 1850 and renewed for the last time in November 1877. Marx would have relished a situation in which a grass-roots citizens’ movement combined with economic pressure threatened to breach the walls of Britain’s establishment and reverse a legacy of its imperialist past.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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