Losing Our Marbles? It Is One of the Most Controversial Issues in the Art World Today-Should Museums Disperse Their Collections and Return Antiquities to Their Original Sites? in Particular, Should the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum Be Restored to Athens?

By Simon, Robin | New Statesman (1996), June 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Losing Our Marbles? It Is One of the Most Controversial Issues in the Art World Today-Should Museums Disperse Their Collections and Return Antiquities to Their Original Sites? in Particular, Should the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum Be Restored to Athens?


Simon, Robin, New Statesman (1996)


With the opening of its glamorous new Acropolis Museum, the Greek campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles appears to have shot itself in the foot. A few years ago, the remaining pieces of the great frieze of the Parthenon in Athens--those not on display at the British Museum--were taken down from the long-suffering temple for conservation. It is now clear that they will never be put back. They have gone on display in the museum, mounted in a gallery that has the identical dimensions of the Parthenon. Joining them, set in their correct locations, are replicas of the originals in London. So far, so good, one might think. But hang on. The replicas are covered in wire mesh veils to represent, it seems, some kind of mourning. This is not didacticism: this is propaganda.

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Greece's minister for culture, Michalis Liapis, has claimed: "For the first time, after 25 centuries, the sculptures are being transferred to the new Acropolis Museum ... It naturally raises our demand for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles." It is not clear why. Now that the remaining Parthenon frieze has been taken down, there is little, aesthetically, in favour of the return of those parts taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. It is only a pity that the Greek authorities did not long ago take casts of their own bits of the frieze, for they have suffered terribly from the poisonous atmosphere of modern Athens. Now it is too late. The casts of the far better-preserved marbles in the British Museum hint, beneath their wire mesh, at the glory that was Greece, and so there must be an awful suspicion that the veils are there not to tell, but to disguise, the truth.

As a matter of fact, replicas--casts of originals--have a most honourable history, and it is foolish for the Acropolis Museum to misuse them in this way. Trajan's Column, for instance, is far more satisfactorily preserved in the form of the 19th-century casts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London than it is in Rome, where pollution and precipitation have ruined the surface of the carvings. If you want to see Trajan's Column, go to South Kensington, where it is conveniently cut in two. Admittedly, in that sense, it is a freak. But its very survival is freakish. In the 1960s, all the V&A casts--as indeed happened with so many casts of classical statues in art colleges up and down the land--were threatened with destruction on the grounds that such things were hopelessly out of date.

The moral ground for restitution of the Elgin Marbles, James Cuno argues, is even wobblier than the aesthetic. (It should be stressed that he talks more about objects from other parts of the world than he does about this notorious case.) There is just one argument in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles: the nationalistic one, and Cuno asserts that it does not count. This is at the heart of his radical analysis of who owns, as he puts it, "antiquity" (defined, since you ask, as something more than 150 years old). He divides the ownership, and the demands for ownership, of antiquities into two. On the one hand there is the international "encyclopaedic" museum, which he describes as "a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissipation of ignorance and superstition ... dedicated to ideas, not ideologies". On the other hand, there are the dark forces of nationalism and "retentionist cultural property laws". It is not only the bien-pensants of the media who have espoused this cause: the international archaeological profession has done so.

The contradictions in this position are almost without number. For instance, archaeologists argue in favour of retentionism on the grounds that it will stop looting and destruction. But this has not happened, Looting is as bad as ever it was. Indeed, Cuno observes, nationalistic policies towards antiquities can make things worse and actively "promote a sectarian view of culture and encourage the politics of identity, at a time when nationalism and sectarian violence are resurgent around the world". …

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Losing Our Marbles? It Is One of the Most Controversial Issues in the Art World Today-Should Museums Disperse Their Collections and Return Antiquities to Their Original Sites? in Particular, Should the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum Be Restored to Athens?
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