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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Our Opinion

If You Build It, Who Will Come?

On January 18, a front-page article by Fred A. Bernstein in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the Sunday New York Times (“Greece’s Colossal New Guilt Trip”) brought the issue of the Parthenon Marbles, and their return to Greece in time for the 2004 Athens Olympiad, to the fore once again. Mr. Bernstein’s focus was on the new Acropolis Museum, designed by the New York architect and former dean of Columbia University’s school of architecture, Bernard Tschumi, and on the controversies surrounding the building’s site.

This is not the place to enter into a debate on Mr. Tschumi’s design or, more to the point, the Greek government’s bizarre decision to build the museum literally on top of what is, in fact, the historical bedrock of the Acropolis, that is, the archeological site surrounding it. This area contains artifactual remains from the neolithic to the post-Byzantine periods, and it demands careful excavation. It is to Mr. Tschumi’s credit that his design allows these excavations to continue; it is to the Greek government’s shame that it insists on erecting any edifice on what should be a strictly protected archeological site — and one moreover that goes to the very heart of the modern world’s relationship to and understanding of Athenian antiquity.

Indeed, the more one thinks seriously about the entire matter of the Acropolis Museum, the more one begins to realize the specious motive behind its construction. The truth is that a central excuse of the British Museum over the last many years, which has been shamelessly used to justify its utterly unjustifiable refusal to return the Parthenon Marbles, has been the alleged “absence” of an appropriate exhibition space to showcase the artifacts. Instead of countering from the outset, however, that this argument was brazenly — indeed, insultingly — irrelevant to the legal and moral issues of what is in fact the most infamous example of a European nation’s theft of another European nation’s cultural patrimony (to distinguish it from the well-known cultural rape by Europe — and the United States — of the rest of the world), the Greek government immediately capitulated to the perpetrator’s logic in this crime and hastened to announce plans for a spankingly new Acropolis Museum whose only real function was to showcase the Parthenon Marbles. If nothing else, this pathetic submission to cultural compulsion betrayed how completely clueless the Greek government is as far as any coherent strategy of restitution of the Marbles is concerned. Furthermore, adding inanity to self-injury, the Greek government vowed to have the museum ready by the time the XXVIIIth Olympiad was ready to begin, hoping in this way to “embarrass” the British Museum into surrendering its loot.

Right. If we were in a more charitable mood, we’d say that this all must have made some sense to somebody at the time (or at least we hope it did), but then we’re instantly reminded of other dazzling aspects of Greek cultural policy of the last few years, including that blindingly brilliant decision to allow representatives of the Greek government to participate in auctions of antiquities. It really is difficult to think of a more grotesque legitimation of this illicit trade — particularly when almost every other nation in the world (from Italy and Turkey to Nigeria, Guatemala, and Iraq) are struggling against what is in fact an international criminal cartel.

In the event, asking that the Parthenon Marbles be returned so that they can be mounted in an exhibition space built for them undermines the legal bases and legitimacy of the Greek demand for their restitution and transmogrifies it into an airy-fairy appeal to sentiment. We’re not sure if the Greek government has noticed, but it seems that the British Museum is not run by a very sentimental group of chappies (which is also why the notion of “embarrassing” them verges on the surrealistic). The issues of cultural patrimony and cultural appropriation are, exclusively and precisely, issues of international convention and law. With the exception of very few instances of voluntary restitution, the majority of cases during the last couple of decades have been settled in adjudication following extensive legal battles. And, as in all issues of law, the greatest worry of private collectors, galleries, and, especially, museums is the establishment of legal precedent. The possibility that just one decision will lead to, and justify, numerous other claims is what keeps the “guardians” of disputed cultural artifacts from sleeping at night.

The grandiloquently titled, “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” which was released in December 2002 and signed by the directors of 18 major museums in Europe and the United States, was a circling of the wagons against all the natives the world over who have had the temerity to attack these “universal” custodians (whose arrogance, it must be said, is breathtaking) and demand the return of their plundered patrimony. More than anything else, that statement was an unsubtle (indeed, transparent) call for a “coalition of the willing” in support of the British Museum’s ongoing colonial war against Greece (see, “Trouble in River City,” December 18, 2002). It was also a manifest warning to the British Museum by “fraternal” institutions to hold firm because a voluntary decision to return the Marbles to Greece would create a historic precedent for all of them.

In the meantime, in the UK itself, the most recent poll, released last month, showed an astounding 73 percent of respondents “agree[ing] that the British Museum should allow the Elgin Marbles to be reunited and displayed again in Athens.” While it is true that this survey was commissioned by a pro-restitution group, it simply confirmed the results of all the polls taken over the last decade; besides, the British Museum is loath to commission any surveys on the subject because it is well aware of the answers it will get back. Given the extraordinary international context of this issue, therefore, we cannot begin to comprehend the Greek government’s dogged refusal to pursue all legal (and even diplomatic) channels available to it in order to force the British Museum — and, in the final analysis, the British government — to take this matter seriously.

But what can one expect from a government whose minister of culture responded to the aforementioned declaration of “universal museums” by spinelessly hastening to reassure all these great (if not always so good) engineers of the West’s mission civilisatrice that, not to worry, Greece “only” wanted the Parthenon Marbles back and had absolutely no other claims? What made the minister’s craven “clarification” truly Kafkaesque was the fact that he is a former professor of law (albeit one, apparently, whose expertise lies in plea bargaining).

The issue of an “appropriate” Greek space for the Parthenon Marbles is perfectly in line with the minister’s complacency regarding the broader definition(s) of cultural patrimony. It is also, obviously, an open invitation to mayhem. Who determines, for example, what constitutes an appropriate exhibition space? How can the Greek government dismiss the possibility that the museum designed by Mr. Tschumi, as well as the controversy surrounding its location, will not result in the British Museum declaring the space to be inappropriate? Would, finally, a hypothetical renovation of the galleries in which the Marbles are currently exhibited by, say, Frank Gehry (or any other superstar-architect) make the British Museum an “appropriate” place once again?

The issue of the return of the Marbles is not and has never been a museological one. It is and has always been (very sad to say) infinitely more straightforward. The “dispute over the legality and the rightness of Lord Elgin’s conduct began almost as soon as the works of his mechanics and operatives did,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book on the Marbles, published in 1987 (Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles). Indeed, in 1812, Lord Byron had his Childe Harold condemn Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, for: “…the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,/To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spar’d.” Byron’s alter ego continues then:

        Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
        His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
        Is he whose head conceiv’d, whose hand prepar’d,
        Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
        Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
        Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.

(We should add that, as a good Englishman, Byron blamed “Caledonia” for Elgin’s ostensibly Scottish desecration, “cold as the crags upon his native coast.”)

If it was clear, then, even before there was a modern Greek nation that the Parthenon Marbles were “riven” from their “sacred shrine,” it is laughable — and inexcusable and morally indefensible — for Greece’s own government to argue now that this is not in fact a legal matter of systematic pillage, and therefore of legal restitution, but simply one of proper museological context.

All these years, the British Museum has subtly employed the insidious argument that Greece cannot be entrusted with the care of its own patrimony — this from the institution under whose “safekeeping,” as the British scholar, William St. Clair, revealed in 1999, the Marbles were “scoured” in the 1930s (see, “A Visit to the British Museum,” by Alexander Kitroeff, January 15, 2003). The supreme — and perhaps most painful — irony here is that while Prof. St. Clair, who teaches at Cambridge University, has accused the museum of “an institutionalized, systematic, sustained, and in many respects illegal attempt to withhold the facts,” the Greek government has not seen fit to censure the museum’s outrageous behavior in any official or legal way, or to seek redress from any international or bilateral (Greek-British) body.

Meanwhile, back at the Acropolis, the new museum, which has become the Greek government’s singular justification — and hope — for the Marbles’ return, is far from finished. In fact, it appears that there is no way that anything resembling a completed building will be ready by August 13, the opening day of the Athens Olympiad — or that the Parthenon Marbles will, in the end, be displayed in “their” new home anytime soon.

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