Behind a Centuries-Old International Feud Over Marbles

Museums around the world are filled with other countries’ ancient treasures. But for the last 200 years, Greece has fought to reclaim its own.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 21, 2014, 6 a.m.

ATHENS, Greece”””All of this marble is in Lon­don,” says Di­mitri­os Pan­dermalis, re­luct­antly ges­tur­ing to an en­tire wall of plaster cop­ies of art that used to be on the Parthen­on.

The pres­id­ent of the Ac­ro­pol­is Mu­seum is clearly tired of re­hash­ing to an­oth­er for­eign journ­al­ist the 200-year-old fight between Greece and the United King­dom. But he knows and be­lieves the script en­tirely: “It’s a crime,” the eld­er cur­at­or tells me in the glass-walled mu­seum at the foot of the an­cient cit­adel. “It’s im­port­ant to have the ori­gin­als here. It’s one unit.”

That so-called crime, as most Greeks still refer to it, was when from 1801 and 1805 the Brit­ish am­bas­sad­or to the Ot­to­man Em­pire de­tached, cut, crow­barred, and hauled half of the sur­viv­ing marble art from the Parthen­on back to his res­id­ence in Lon­don. Since the Ot­to­mans ruled Athens at the time””and for around 350 years be­fore””he sup­posedly got per­mis­sion from the prop­er au­thor­it­ies to have at it. They just so happened to have not been Greek. In fin­an­cial trouble, the am­bas­sad­or, named Lord El­gin, fi­nally sold the pieces to the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment in 1816. They were then trans­ferred to the Brit­ish Mu­seum, and have been there ever since.

The level of fa­tigue from Pan­dermalis makes sense after dec­ades of try­ing to get the marbles re­turned to Athens; the Greeks have lob­bied for them since gain­ing in­de­pend­ence in 1830. The Ac­ro­pol­is Mu­seum was built five years ago primar­ily to show the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity that Greece could ad­equately dis­play the marbles without ex­pos­ing them to the pol­luted Athens air and un­stable Ac­ro­pol­is grounds.

Fur­ther, the Greeks aren’t ask­ing for all their an­tiquit­ies back, they say, just the marbles of the Parthen­on. They are pieces of a sym­bol: one build­ing, one com­plete work of art that em­bod­ies the birth of demo­cracy.

But while Atheni­an fa­cil­it­ies have changed, the Brit­ish po­s­i­tion has re­mained firm: The Parthen­on marbles right­fully be­long to them and will re­main in their mu­seum. For nearly 200 years, Brit­ish of­fi­cials say, the mu­seum took care of the ar­ti­facts and in­ves­ted heav­ily in their pre­ser­va­tion and res­tor­a­tion. If the marbles had re­mained, they may have been ir­re­medi­ably dam­aged like so much of the Parthen­on has been. Plus, they ar­gue, by bring­ing the an­tiquit­ies to a ma­jor city like Lon­don for mil­lions of vis­it­ors to see, in­terest in An­cient Greece, and thus the mod­ern state of Greece, in­creased glob­ally.

For many of the most prom­in­ent mu­seums, their ac­quired an­tiquit­ies be­long to all people in the world, and not ne­ces­sar­ily to the mod­ern coun­try where the items came from thou­sands of years ago. As one Brit­ish colum­nist wrote, it is “ri­dicu­lous to try to claim that the mod­ern Atheni­an car­ries the blood of Pericles and of fifth-cen­tury Atheni­ans in his veins.” An­oth­er com­ment­at­or notes that be­cause the world is so di­verse and in­ter­con­nec­ted cul­tur­ally, “the Parthen­on Marbles are as much Brit­ish as they are Greek.”

This is how the Ber­lin Neues jus­ti­fies hold­ing on to the bust of Queen Ne­fer­titi, or the Brit­ish Mu­seum keeps the Rosetta Stone, both des­pite re­quests from Egypt to have them re­turned. If every mu­seum in Europe or the United States agreed to re­turn an­tiquit­ies to their coun­tries of ori­gin, their col­lec­tions would be drained and mil­lions of people, mu­seums say, would be left without items of his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance. Plus, the fact that items are in cer­tain mu­seums only adds to their in­di­vidu­al his­tory. Today, there are An­cient Greek treas­ures in a Mo­scow mu­seum that were taken from Ger­many after World War II.

There have been cases in re­cent years where coun­tries have suc­cess­fully lob­bied for the re­turn of their ar­ti­facts, but those had to deal with items that were un­ques­tion­ably stolen or looted. Tur­key has stood out in this area, re­ceiv­ing a Hittite Em­pire sphinx from the Per­ga­mon Mu­seum in Ber­lin and the Weary Herakles statue from the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Bo­ston. The Met­ro­pol­it­an Mu­seum of Art in New York re­cently re­turned an an­cient bowl called the Eu­phro­nios krater, and the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum in Los Angeles re­turned a ter­ra­cotta head of Hades, both to Italy. And in Ju­ly, Ger­many re­turned 10,600 Greek ar­ti­facts re­moved il­leg­ally by Nazis dur­ing World War II.

The Greeks ar­gue that the Parthen­on, in the same vein, was looted il­leg­ally, where a Brit­ish dip­lo­mat re­ceived a shoddy per­mit by a dis­af­fected for­eign ruler to take the na­tion­al treas­ures of a power­less people.

Italy, the Vat­ic­an, and Sweden have all re­turned pieces of Parthen­on marble, but dozens of items re­main in not only Lon­don, but also in Par­is, Copen­ha­gen, Vi­enna, Mu­nich, and Wurzburg. Do those pieces be­long in “uni­ver­sal mu­seums” that tell a broad story of world his­tory? Or do they be­long in a mu­seum that tells the whole story of An­cient Greece’s most fam­ous sym­bol?

That’s a de­bate for the Brit­ish Mu­seum and the Ac­ro­pol­is Mu­seum to work out, and it’s a de­bate that has taken its toll on the re­la­tion­ship between the two mu­seums””and coun­tries. “They are not so happy for this in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure,” Pan­dermalis ad­mits about the Brit­ish Mu­seum. “Of course, we should keep bridges for fu­ture agree­ment. If you have only clashes, it’s not pos­sible to have suc­cess.” But suc­cess for him is to have all the marbles in Athens. And so the de­bate con­tin­ues.

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