MPs table Bill to return Parthenon Sculptures to Greece

Patrick Steel, 13.07.2016
Bill introduced to “put right a 200 year wrong”
This week a cross-party group of MPs, led by Mark Williams, tabled the Parthenon Sculptures (Return to Greece) Bill, calling for a change in the law to allow the British Museum to transfer ownership of the marbles to Greece.

The Private Members' Bill was presented to Parliament on Monday by Mark Williams, and was supported by Roger Gale, Margaret Ferrier, Jeremy Lefroy, Mary Glindon, Hywel Williams, and Liz Saville Roberts.

Williams said: “If there had been a justification for taking these sculptures into safe keeping in the UK in the early 1800s that moment has now long passed. These magnificent artefacts were improperly dragged and sawn off the remains of the Parthenon.

"Indeed they have hardly been in safe keeping; nearly lost altogether on their journey back; and damaged by inept management while in the British Museum.

“This Bill proposes that Parliament should annul what it did 200 years ago. In 1816 Parliament effectively state-sanctioned the improper acquisition of these impressive and important sculptures from Greece. It’s time we engaged in a gracious act. To put right a 200 year wrong.”

A British Museum spokeswoman said: “The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story.

“The museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world-wide public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures.

“The trustees lend extensively all over the world and over two million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.

“The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (approximately half of what survive from antiquity) to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history.

“The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history.

“Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered.”

The Bill will be read a second time on 20 January 2017.

Comments

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Christopher Gordon
researcher and lecturer
19.07.2016, 16:08
Marlen Godwin seems to have a default setting that automatically adds 'superlative' any time the Acropolis Museum is mentioned. But repeating something you want everyone to believe doesn't necessarily make it true. Sadly, I have to say I am far from alone in finding much of the museum far from superlative - either internally or externally. The legitimate Parthenon controversy aside, the unparalleled archaic votive statues and the utterly wonderful sculptures from the balustrade of the Temple of Nike are displayed in a shockingly insensitive manner. The meeting point of academic pedantry, museum fashion and art appreciation does not produce a happy result.
19.07.2016, 17:00
We can agree and disagree on the 'superlative' Acropolis Museum and the way in which visitors to London or Athens enjoy the sculptures from the Parthenon. Uniting the sculptures from the Parthenon, a peerless work of art, would perhaps go some way towards 'building a stronger culture of empathy within museums'.

The Parthenon is a monument of the Athenian Acropolis, and it is right and proper that as much of the original monument as may still survive and can be properly curated and displayed should be curated and displayed as near to the original site on the Acropolis as is humanly possible. That means - apart from the substantial actual remains of the building that are still on the Acropolis itself - in the Acropolis Museum.
18.07.2016, 23:16
It's interesting just how often the old fallacies and assertions surface on this matter. First the persistent and self-serving mantra from the British Museum, that "visitors can explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures" better there, so the Parthenin Sculptures can be better understood if left there. Just how does the museum facilitate this, particularly with fragments of material culture assembled in a foreign context and devoid of historical, contemporary cultural or bio-geographic context is difficult to understand. At best the museum offers an Anglo-centric taxonomy, a myopic and static view of culture bathed in a nostalgic imperial twilight.

Then we come to that most curious of arguments, in this case offered in the comment section, that because the nation state of Greece didn't exist when the Parthenon was build, and the ethnic mix of Greece has changed over the years, any moral claim Greece might make are diminished. Such ahistoric absurdity if taken to its logical conclusion would see very few places in the world secure in their claim over their older material culture and built environment.

As the modern Greek state emerged from Ottoman domination the Parthenon was its symbolic focal point, a material representation of the tenacity and uniqueness that had allowed Greek culture to survive under Ottoman. It's importance to contemporary Greece is evident wherever one goes in Greece or throughout the Hellenic diaspora.

When anything is removed from its context its dynamic meaning is stripped away. Butterfly collections come to mind. Gazing at such collections one has little sense of the way a butterfly might have inhabited its environment, only the dimensions and patterns can be compared. So it is with the BM's Parthenon Gallery its eccentric display area, insipid light and filthy skylight. How one is expected to gain any sense of the sculptures' relationship with their original environment. Their relationship with the geology that through human artistry and ingenuity gave birth to them, with the seasonally variable light that transformed their appearance through the day and through the year, and their commanding place on that pinnacle in Attica, is impossible to conceive in London.

The New Acropolis Museum is a space intended both to conserve and to display the Parthenon's frieze, metopes and pedimental sculptures in a manner as close as possible to their original context. The display area is set along the same axis as the Parthenon and within a few hundred metres of the building. In this appropriately illuminated and clean environment the entire array of remaining sculptural elements can be correctly displayed.

Museology is changing globally. New spaces are opening throughout what was, not so long ago, the developing world. Opportunities for the return of objects taken in another time are increasing but along with this are new opportunities for new flows of material from areas that were once plundered outposts of empire. There is no need to worry about a deluge of exhibits flooding out of old institutions like the BM, never to be seen again, but an opportunity to embrace new connections, new alliances and enjoy new opportunities for sharing and exchange. In its relationship with Greece alone, the BM can benefit immensely if this old wrong is put to right.
Brian LeMay
Director
18.07.2016, 18:20
By contemporary standards, Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the sculptures from the Parthenon were inarguably a desecration of a site then in much better condition than it is now, but the legality of Elgin’s actions under international law is today hotly argued, and perhaps therefore indisputably arguable. In fact, the legal authorities governing Athens at the time that they were removed were different than those that are now making claims to return the sculptures. The muddy legal arguments are therefore largely given second place to moral arguments that the artworks should be returned to their country of origin, and to their original site.

The government of Greece accordingly argues that it has a moral right to the Parthenon sculptures because they were created in Greece and are treasures of Greek culture. Although ancient Greece and modern Greece have the same name, the sculptures were created by the earlier culture and by peoples of the city-state of Athens, not by the different ethnic and cultural population that created the modern nation of Greece. The sculptures were removed under the earlier Ottoman government from the geographic area where the present nation of Greece was subsequently established, but it is difficult to argue that moral claims can automatically be made by the Greek government on all public properties disposed of by the former Ottoman government, however significant the properties may be.

The moral argument that the sculptures are to be returned to their place of origin is also difficult to sustain, because there are no plans to reinstall the sculptures in situ on the Parthenon from which all sculptures were removed (whether for deplorable treasure-hunting or legitimate preservation purposes). Rather, they are to be appropriately displayed in a different museum. Although this museum is closer to the Parthenon (and has a view of it), it is difficult to argue that this museum is more authentically the original home of the sculptures than is another museum more distant, and that it therefore has a greater moral claim to them by virtue of the museum’s greater proximity to the original architecture.
19.07.2016, 15:27
As you write, the Parthenon cannot be restored to its original state with its marbles reattached. However, the Acropolis Museum in Athens is the one place on earth where it is possible to have a simultaneous visual and aesthetic experience of the Parthenon and its sculptures.

The British Museum rests its case on its status as a universal museum with a consequent higher order claim on the marbles than the parochial Acropolis Museum.

The debate about universal museums is well rehearsed. Suffice to say, many question the claimed status and prerogatives. However, it is good at least to see the argument turning to principles of museology.

It would be even better to have an open debate with the British Museum about the marbles in the context of collaboration, interdependence and cultural mobility.

Why can’t it display its marbles in Athens and share responsibility for their display, curation and study with their Greek counterparts? Instead, the statement from the BM's 'spokeswoman' is an entrenched position based on the principle of “our story is the one that has value, our display is the one that delivers the important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history"..... so what 'we have, we keep'. No choice for the millions of visitors, no competition for the superlative Acropolis Museum. Pity that the BM statement does little to uphold the good museums ethos of: effective museums engage with contemporary issues. http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=1001738
Brian LeMay
Director
18.07.2016, 18:14
By contemporary standards, Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the sculptures from the Parthenon were inarguably a desecration of a site then in much better condition than it is now, but the legality of Elgin’s actions under international law is today hotly argued, and perhaps therefore indisputably arguable. In fact, the legal authorities governing Athens at the time that they were removed were different than those that are now making claims to return the sculptures. The muddy legal arguments are therefore largely given second place to moral arguments that the artworks should be returned to their country of origin, and to their original site.

The government of Greece accordingly argues that it has a moral right to the Parthenon sculptures because they were created in Greece and are treasures of Greek culture. Although ancient Greece and modern Greece have the same name, the sculptures were created by the earlier culture and by peoples of the city-state of Athens, not by the different ethnic and cultural population that created the modern nation of Greece. The sculptures were removed under the earlier Ottoman government from the geographic area where the present nation of Greece was subsequently established, but it is difficult to argue that moral claims can automatically be made by the Greek government on all public properties disposed of by the former Ottoman government, however significant the properties may be.

The moral argument that the sculptures are to be returned to their place of origin is also difficult to sustain, because there are no plans to reinstall the sculptures in situ on the Parthenon from which all sculptures were removed (whether for deplorable treasure-hunting or legitimate preservation purposes). Rather, they are to be appropriately displayed in a different museum. Although this museum is closer to the Parthenon (and has a view of it), it is difficult to argue that this museum is more authentically the original home of the sculptures than is another museum more distant, and that it therefore has a greater moral claim to them by virtue of the museum’s greater proximity to the original architecture.
14.07.2016, 15:19

The late Eddie O''Hara as Chairman of the British Committee for the Reunifications of the Parthenon Marbles wrote on the 13th of April 2015:
"The Parthenon marbles as magnificent works of art would be important to any collection. But in the end their role is contingent on the fact that, by an accident of history, viz the divorce of Lord Elgin and his consequent bankruptcy, they have ended up in the British Museum. If they weren’t there the British Museum surely has adequate alternate exemplars in its collection to make the same point in their world narrative. And if not, the Greek Government has a standing offer of a rolling programme of alternative exemplars to do the job.

In the end, we can accept that these sculptures play an important but not an indispensable role in the British Museum’s world narrative. However the price of this is the compromise of the integrity of a pre-eminent work of art (pace now sadly incomplete), the monument to which they belong, and the museum to whose narrative they ARE INDISPENSABLE as long as they exist.

Surely given the possibilities of modern technology, the establishment of an outpost in Athens is not only possible but a small price to escape the status quo, in which public opinion increasingly sees the stance of the British Museum as a vanity project and the Parthenon marbles as trophies in it."

We all admire the British Museum and all it does to showcase 'cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures', although have to add. we do not always necessarily understand them. Nonetheless we also acknowledge that to reunite these specific sculptures in the superlative Acropolis Museum in Athens would restore their artistic integrity as they would be joining their other halves.

The glass walled Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum, glassed walled and in line of sight of the Parthenon, ensures visitors can view the sculptures simultaneously with the building to which they belong - the Parthenon - a UNESCO World Heritage monument, the very emblem of UNESCO itself.
Christopher Gordon
researcher and lecturer
14.07.2016, 11:31
So here we go again – no doubt encouraged by the recent, simplistic lobbying antics of Mrs Clooney. The ‘official’ information put out by both the Athens Acropolis Museum and by the British Museum is somewhat disingenuous, but that’s only to be expected.
Because of the unique cultural significance of the Parthenon to ‘Greek’ identity, I’ve always felt there was a powerful moral (NB not legal) case that might override the customary ‘thin end of the wedge’ justification. However, much more recently I find myself a slightly surprised convert to retention by the BM. What has changed my view is the reality of the new Acropolis Museum – which was supposed to be the clincher for settling the argument for all time, according to its advocates. It doesn’t. In fact it’s a mess (and the display of the incomparable archaic sculptures to me constitutes a crime). It doesn’t seem to know if it’s an archaeological museum or an art gallery, and it fails on both counts. The Parthenon top floor is just clunky.
I first saw the Parthenon and its sculptures in Athens (in 1961) before I’d ever been to the British Museum (not everyone lives in London or assumes it’s the centre of the universe). On first seeing the ‘Elgin Marbles’ in London’s grey light, I experienced some disappointment. And yes, the frieze is shown inside out etc. but at least you can see it properly. The hawks make much of the 1930s cleaning damage – but that has to be seen in the context of standard museum practice in that era. The Acropolis Museum isn’t exactly upfront with its own admission concerning the incredible damage done to the sculptures left in situ in the increasing pollution in Athens through the 20th century (surviving plaster casts of ‘then’ and ‘now’ amply demonstrate the scale of the avoidable damage). It’s a sad story with neither side emerging heroically from it, but what we were assured would put the argument beyond doubt badly fails to do so. I used to visit the ‘old’ Acropolis Museum annually with joy, its unfashionable, but respectful, display methods notwithstanding. The new museum I find disappointing and often infuriating.
14.07.2016, 00:05
The return of the Parthenon question rears it head again and the debate starts afresh. The Greeks claim it as theirs. It is not, it is the property of the Athenians long gone. The Parthenon built as a symbol of their new found semi-Imperial power over the other Hellenistic states. The act is a piece of misguided good intention that could have much wider implications. No good would come of returning them only bad judgement. I am proud that the museums in this country send out on loan vast amount of cultural history so that other people can enjoy and learn from them. This act may make people think twice about doing so.
19.07.2016, 12:52
The sculptures from the Parthenon in the first instance belong to themselves. Reuniting them in Athens with their other halves, literally other halves, would unite what was created as a whole. It would also promote cultural co-operation and prove that when it's required there is plenty of empathy. Here's to creating a stronger message for all mankind.
Anonymous
13.07.2016, 15:24
well put.