What’s in a collection of Ancient Greek sculptures’ name?
Should we refer to the Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures?
The recent developments in the endless controversy over the sculptures Lord Elgin brought to London from Athens more than 200 years ago have once again illustrated how much the language we use daily shapes how we see the world around us.
It is probably in everyone’s memory that until recent years, the name of “Elgin Marbles” was, if not precisely uncontroversial, at least firmly established as the official way to define the sculptures attributed to Phidias that are seen by millions of visitors every year in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum. “The Elgin Marbles” would be listed amongst the highlights of the museum, and guidebooks would use this denomination to refer to this part of the museum’s permanent collection. Then, all of a sudden, everything changed. A furious tug of war started, with the new denomination of “Parthenon Sculptures” being progressively forced into the language as the politically correct alternative and the only name the “respectful” intellectuals would use to mention the sculptures.
Despite the mounting pressure to clean up our language from such vestiges of the past, the name “Elgin Marbles” keeps popping up over and over again, with journalists and commentators constantly forced to use one name and then immediately add the other, resulting in more or less clunky combinations such as “the Parthenon Sculptures, formerly known as the Elgin Marbles” and “the Elgin Marbles, now also known as the Parthenon Sculptures”. This parodistic exercise in language reorientation is still a partial success, even after the tactical victory obtained by domesticating the British Museum into using the “new” denomination.
A bird’s eye view of the present situation will immediately reveal that the differences in usage are not merely demographic, with older people using the name they have learned at school whilst the younger generation adopts the new fashionable denomination. In a dynamic we have already observed during Brexit, the use of the labels is more transversal and firmly linked to precise ideological choices: traditionalists, conservatives, and supporters of the UK’s position on ownership of the sculptures are naturally drawn to use the established name. The Greeks, British progressives, and supporters of restitution worldwide will, by preference, make use of the newly minted moniker.
I know that, after three paragraphs, you are already itching to know which is correct and which is not. Well, they can be both correct depending on which bits you are alluding to, but generally speaking, one is more correct than the other.
Let’s start by saying that the two names don’t actually define the same things. “Parthenon Sculptures” describes all the items belonging to the sculptural decoration of the temple of Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens. This includes the frieze, the metopes and pedimental sculptures, and it is not dependent on the present location of the items. Whether we are talking about the foot of Artemis that was in Palermo until not long ago, or the torso of Poseidon in the Acropolis Museum, they are all “Parthenon Sculptures”. It doesn’t really matter who took what and when, or what was left behind. What counts is the building they are originally coming from.
This label sanitises any reference to the person who made those sculptures famous
The name “Elgin Marbles”, or — more officially — “The Elgin Collection of ancient Marbles and Sculpture”, refers instead specifically to those pieces brought over to England by Lord Elgin and sold to the nation in 1816. They do, of course, include the sculptures from the Parthenon we see in the Duveen Gallery, but are not limited to those: some architectonic elements of the temple (a column drum, a capital, an acroterion), as well as elements from other buildings on the Acropolis like the Erechteion (the famous Caryatid, a piece of the entablature, a column with capital and base, a bit of cornice), and then also inscriptions and various other pieces are part of the same collection. The collective name of this collection, in its short and long form, is inscribed in the act of Parliament that determined their acquisition and is consistently used throughout the report of the inquiry carried out by the Select Committee before the purchase. In other words, it is the legal name of the collection. As such, it is also the one that has been used repeatedly in over 200 years of scientific and divulgative publications.
Here, in this partial overlap of the two labels, lies the origin of the confusion and the potential for ambiguity. Let me give you an example. To say that the Greek Government wants the “Elgin Marbles” back is technically incorrect since they are only after that share of the “Parthenon Sculptures” that is included in the Elgin Collection, happily leaving in London the Caryatid and the architectural pieces. On the other hand, should I prompt you to go and see the “Parthenon Sculptures” in person, you may not know if this entails a short ride in a cab or the purchase of one — or even more than one — international plane ticket, unless I specify where I want you to go.
It is now maybe more clear why the Greeks and the partisans of restitution keep insisting on the use of the term “Parthenon Sculptures”, thus underlying with their language choice what the Greek premier Mitsotakis explained to Laura Kuensberg last Sunday: that their goal is the reunification of all the fragments of the Parthenon. It doesn’t matter much to them that this reunification is not at all possible, given that one-third of the original sculptural decoration is now forever lost (blown into pieces, ground into mortar or reshaped into headstones), and that the surviving fragments will never be reunited with the temple they were originally meant to decorate, because of conservation concerns. They are all too happy to be generic and ambiguous so long as they can reinforce the link between the sculptures — all of them, wherever they may be — and the monument, even if this can be a reunification in name only (R-I-N-O? Or maybe the more ominous R-U-I-N-O?). Moreover, this label allows them to sanitise any reference to the person who made those sculptures famous: Lord Elgin.
Less clear is why the British Museum and part of our national media are giving in to this fashion unless we assume that those who use the new name also support the Greek position. Why would the BBC and the BM replace a long-established, scientifically accurate and legally mandated denomination with a label that is generic, ambiguous and ideologically charged? The reasons for the British Museum are transparent: in a period when politically correct language is actively enforced on institutions and corporate environments, and public support and donations directly correlate with compliance, it wanted people to see that it was “doing something” about the whole Elgin controversy, even if it was the wrong thing to do (especially from a legal and scientific standpoint). When it comes to the BBC and other media outlets, I suspect the reasons must be located squarely in the area of political alignment and affiliation. A style guide on this is still missing at the Corporation, and this is maybe why there are still a few laudable exceptions.
The next time you want to discuss Anglo-Hellenic international relations, you can consciously decide which name you want to use for the pieces at the centre of the longest-running art law dispute in history. I, for my part, will stick to calling them the Elgin Marbles, both out of conviction in their right to remain in this country and as a homage to the man who upended his entire life and sacrificed his fortunes to save them from certain destruction.
After all, we should have learned by now that fashions come and go whilst the Marbles remain (in London).
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