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Artillery Row

The immoral case for restitution

Britain does not owe Greece the Parthenon sculptures

Another government falls, and another minister will come to the DCMS. Yet some debates remain, not just through successive governments, but even through decades and entire centuries. A typical example of this is the debate around restitution of what is now called “contested heritage”. It takes just a brief sweep through the news of the last month to reveal multiple mentions of the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles) — with a generous side dish of imperialism, decolonisation and the culture wars.

For a brief moment last week, the partisans of all-out restitution were pinning their hopes on Lord Vaizey of Didcot and the debate about a review of the Heritage Act 1983 that he instigated in the House of Lords. Despite his long tenure as Arts Minister and the ample opportunity he had to look into the matter, it is only now that he has decided to sink his teeth into the controversy, apparently following a damascene conversion about what should be the rightful place for the Parthenon sculptures. Here he is, in his new role as chairman of the recently founded Parthenon Project (“yet another medal on his chest” as Lord McNally put it, whilst comparing him to “a Soviet general”), advocating a change in the legislation that would enable the trustees of national museums to alienate items from their collection if they so wished. Lord Vaizey has not been successful this time, but they’ll try again.

In other words, we are all Greeks

The Parthenon Project, a pressure group adding to the already substantial number of associations and committees for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures, is generously funded by Greek plastics magnate John Lefas, who seems to have endowed it with something in the region of £10m and who is busy sponsoring full-expense trips to Athens for peers and members of the lower house in order to convince them of the merits of the enterprise. That’s not all — they are echoing what the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis defined as “a very systematic work by the [Greek] government to cultivate British public opinion”, a massive persuasion operation aimed at achieving success from within where they have failed for two centuries at intergovernmental level.

The tactic shifted in 2014, when the Greek government decided to drop once and for all any prospect of mounting a legal challenge to the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin Marbles. The case, spearheaded by human rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney, simply had too slim a chance of success, and the risk of certifying the lack of fundament of the Greek claim in a court of law would put a lid on the matter once and for all. 

That is when the Hellenic government decided to rely only on diplomatic means. The restitution galaxy moved away from contesting the legal possession to arguing for the existence of a “moral case” for repatriation. This is where the Parthenon debate morphs from a 200-year legal squabble about illicit possession into a chapter of the wider fight against imperial acquisition. Blurring the lines and moving from legal to moral seems to work its magic on the public, if the latest spot surveys are anything to go by. Even the Times has changed its longstanding position, eager not to be found on the “wrong side” of a reputation-wrecking debate about the British Empire. 

This is just a ruse. The Parthenon has nothing to do with the acquisitions of the Empire, more often than not connected with military action in places under its influence (when not effective control) and sometimes justified as “spoils of war”. There was no war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire when Lord Elgin was sent to Constantinople. It was a mature relationship between a global and a regional power, based on mutual recognition and reciprocal advantage. Allowing Elgin to take whatever he pleased was just another way for the Ottomans to buy favour and get the support they wanted in their fight against the French. What the Sultan was doing was simply to trade something of his that had very little value to him for what he perceived as a priceless advantage; in the grand scheme of things, Egypt was well worth a bunch of Greek sculptures. Changing context and details, this is no different from what the Horniman Museum and the Smithsonian Institution are doing now, alienating the Benin Bronzes in their possession: they are merely trading something to which they attribute a relatively modest value in exchange for approval and prestige, a small price to pay for making a reputation-staining “problem” go away. 

Here lies the fundamental difference between the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Sculptures: the value of these objects in the eyes of the holder (and its public), the role they play as evidence in the documentation and explanation of who we are. Isocrates, one of the most successful Athenian orators, once wrote that “the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood”; in other words, we are all Greeks. The Parthenon sculptures make an impression on us Europeans not just because of their inherent artistic qualities, but also because they tell us something about ourselves, who we are and who we have been. For those educated in a culture founded on the bedrock of the Greek and Roman civilisation, this feeling cannot be foreign. However politically incorrect this may sound, I don’t find this to be applicable just in the same way to most of us for the Benin Bronzes, the Akan Drum or the moai of Easter Island, to make a few examples. Placing the Elgin Marbles in the same category with the rest of the “contested heritage” is wrong and ideologically motivated. 

The Orthodox Church was silent about the sculptures

I have argued elsewhere how instrumental the arrival of the Elgin collection to our shores has been for the evolution of the artistic sensibilities in this country — the shift from the aestheticized neoclassicism to the sublime realism of the first Romantics. Even the most passionate Greek cannot deny the role that this newly acquired perception of the relics of our common identity had in building up British support for the independence of the Greeks and ultimately the formation of the Hellenic state. Modern Greece is indebted to Elgin just as much as it is to Byron, and yet one is constantly slandered and the other is celebrated in every Greek city. The reason for this is eminently political and hidden in the fine print of the history books. The newly created state needed a strong identity around which to build its nationhood, a glue that would bind the citizens of the new political body together and temper their loyalty with the flames of pride: the supposed continuity with the Ancient Greeks. Once again, the inhabitants of the land of Perikles and Leonidas could oppose Greekness to Turkishness in much the same way as Hellenes confronted the Persians twenty-three centuries before. 

It is not by chance that there is no trace of Greek claims to the Parthenon sculptures before the early days of the epanastasis, more than two decades after Elgin had left Greece for good. During the time of his ambassadorial tenure, the official Greek voice, that of the Orthodox Church, was silent about the sculptures, with the notables of the Greek community of Athens all too happy to see the work of the pagans gone, along with their corrupting influence from the followers of the orthodoxy. With the new state all that changes; the ruins become at once proof of descent and title to the land. Reducing their own identity to the idealised zenith of classical Athens, the new Greeks eagerly embrace the “modern” German theories of Hellenic supremacy, laying waste to every foreign element in the process. Amidst widespread condemnation of the scientific community, the Acropolis of Athens is stripped of every last trace of its Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish past. Only one moment is worth celebrating: the age of Perikles. 

As an archaeologist, I have been trained to look at the objects that survived from the past in a diachronic perspective, not as snapshots but as elements of a continuum. The same stones, pots, and bronzes, are used and reused through the ages, given new meaning, new functions and new lives. A stone carved with a set of accounts becomes a threshold for a door, and a lead market weight becomes a paperweight. The Parthenon sculptures make no exception to this logic of transformation. Their function of building decoration has been fundamentally lost the very minute their marble feet touched a museum shelf. In their morphed form of heritage objects, changed from decoration of a monument into monuments themselves, they can be symbols of modern Greek nationalism or witnesses of our history, good or bad as it may have been.

Let’s assume you and I, however unlikely this may be, share a grandfather. The poor man dies, and you get the house whilst I get to keep his portrait (which you didn’t even care much about). After some time, when all is said and done, you come to me claiming back the portrait, saying that the testament may not be valid, that the portrait was originally meant to stay in that house, that you have recently lavishly refurbished the room where you want to put the painting, that you would care for it more than I ever could. On top of this, you accuse me of being “a serial thief”, pointing to the other heirlooms in my house which belonged to different relatives and acquaintances of mine. You keep telling me you have a moral case for getting the painting from me. What moral case can you really argue for? Is any amount of mystification, distortion of the truth, partial presentation of the elements of the case, going to gain you any moral advantage? Can you really build a moral case in an immoral way?

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