A case for the Parthenon Marbles

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Ah! The foreign lands cherish my gem, my sweet, soft, fragrant flower, silently and solemnly.”

These are the lyrics of a traditional Greek song, that few students from a high school in Crete chanted, while they were on a school trip to London, with their professors holding a Greek flag, in front of the seventh, lonely, Caryatid statue exhibited in a small, narrow room, hidden in the vastness of the British Museum. A few days after the incidence, I had the chance of visiting the British Museum, myself, and I felt the need, since multiple of my compatriots have expressed their opinion upon the issue, to stress mine as well.

The issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles has concerned the entirety of Greece, the management, and the trustees of the British Museum for quite some time.

In summary, since its independence in 1832, Greece has called, multiple times, for the return of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures that the British diplomat Lord Elgin had removed from the structure, when Greece was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, the sculptures were donated to the British Museum, and its management has refused repeatedly to return them, supporting the position that they were acquired under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire, while Greece insists that they were stolen. Nowadays, the argument has been brought to the surface once again, with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as the French President Emmanuel Macron, voicing their support for the return of the marbles back to Greece.

I am aware that I am writing this amidst the coronavirus pandemic. It is indisputable that this crisis has brought a pause in the majority of people’s lives. However, this break in proceedings of our lives need not be taken negatively. Being away from the hustle and bustle of our daily routine can be beneficial, as it offers isolation from the constant bombardment of the opinions of our friends, family, the media etc., which, in turn, allows for critical reflection among past issues and a re-evaluation of our stance towards them.

I have heard multiple opinions on the issue of the return, and I have seen a variety of demonstrations and acts of protest by Greeks and Non-Greeks in the exhibitions of the British Museum (such as the T-shirts with the commonly used slogan of ‘Bring Them Home’). Some, indeed, are passionate enough to express that the marbles belong rightfully to the Hellenic Republic’s heritage, for their acquisition was illegitimate in the first place, since the Greek people were oppressed by the rule of the Sultan and had no power to prevent such acts or claim what rightfully was theirs. Others, setting aside historical conflicts, see the British Museum in a more positive light- as a place where cultures meet and the world is able to cherish their historical value. However, in both of these arguments, the positioning of the question at hand is obvious: Who is the rightful owner of the marbles now? Is it Greece or the British Museum?

There are multiple arguments to be made for both sides. Greek actress and well-known activist in favour of the marbles’ return, Melina Merkouri expressed to the people that calling the Parthenon Marbles as Elgin’s Marbles (a common appellation used when referring to them) is fallacious, for the marbles, culturally, belong to Greece, and not Lord Elgin. Merkouri ended her speech by stressing her wish to see the Parthenon marbles’ return, and if she is not alive by then, she will be reborn to see them. Although this is a strong statement, I do not believe that the emotionalism Merkouri has been using in her approach is doing the argument for return any justice. On the contrary, one could say that the idea of ownership and their identification with the obsessive and highly possessive apprehensions of the two countries (UK and Greece) constitutes an element of moral vandalism that degrades the historical value of the marbles themselves.

The marbles do not solely constitute an element of modern ‘Greekness’, but an element of the Ancient Greek civilization, whose values have been globally extended and taught. However, I couldn’t compromise either with the idea that the rightful owners of the Parthenon Marbles are the affluent trustees, managing the British Museum. If I was forced to direct their ownership, I would say that, indisputably, the Parthenon Marbles are owned, ultimately, by their own history, land, and spirit. Thus, I trust that there should be a cultural contract of the global order to restore a historical, cultural, but also ethical harmony, for this is the most morally right way of offering our respects to a civilization that has gifted to modernity, multiple values and ideals that constitute the foundation of our progressed societies.

It is evident that I treat the issue of the return in terms of morality, not in terms of national ownership. There is no need for such an argumentative debate to exist. The Parthenon Marbles are no longer, although they were previously treated as such, a commodity to be traded, and perceiving them as products today is arbitrarily derogatory. The issue is not that the marbles are situated in the British Museum, but rather that they are not situated at the place where they should ethically and architecturally be. At their ‘topos’. The idea of topos here does not represent merely a geographic place, but the idea of a continuous wholeness. It’s morally degrading that the peoples of Greece and the United Kingdom have made themselves comfortable with the idea that the importance of the Parthenon’s Marbles lies on their derogatory ownership as opposed to their historical value and continuum.

The Parthenon Marbles include an 80-meter frieze depicting the Great Panathenaia, an Ancient Greek celebration honouring goddess Athena. The story of the feast progresses in the 92 metopes surrounding the Parthenon temple. This story has, unfortunately, been brutally dissected. The metopes located at the British Museum present a fragmentary story with disharmoniously placed parts of the story’s commencement, middle, and finale. The rest of the metopes are found in the depressingly hollow Museum of the Acropolis in the centre of Athens, next to the Acropolis Hill.

My argument is in favour of the return of the Parthenon Marbles. However, this is not grounded on the Hellenic Republic’s claimed legal possession, but on the truthful representation of their historical continuity that complements the location of their origin. The return is in honour of their Ancient Greek heritage and not for the establishment of their modern Greek proprietorship.

It is dismaying that the focus is positioned on the marbles’ ownership but not on their respectability. This is displayed by both the peoples of Greece and of United Kingdom. For example, the British Museum has placed large engraved copper plaques stuck to the walls of their Ancient Greece exhibition halls, showing gratitude for the donations of the Fleischman family for offering their old collection to honour their loving son Arthur I. Fleischman. This justifies the emotions of a friend of mine that felt that the marbles were displayed as past trophies in the halls of the British Museum, retelling the times that exploitative trade and dominion circulated round the British Empire of colonialism. Yet, the Greeks, through their protests, hang proudly their national flags and chant traditional Greek homecoming themed songs while gazing at the ancient statues, that, eventually, seem to have the slightest cultural relevance to the nature of their demonstrations. The foolish problem with both of these displays is that the emphasis is shifted, not on the return of the marbles in honour of their being and history, but for the satisfaction of nationalistic pride and convictions of each nation accordingly. Nevertheless, I believe, that, as the centrality of the debate has been distorted, the Greeks process the issue at stake with the same way. For them, the Parthenon marbles have become, as well, a trophy that will authenticate their linkage to the magnitude of the Ancient Greek spirit and the magnificence of their civilization.

Concluding, I end up in two solutions. The one would be a direction of focus towards a larger and more concentrated effort coming from the Hellenic Republic, aiming for the return of the marbles in Greece, welcomed by an open (with free access) Museum of the Acropolis, which will display the marbles at their topos, presenting them with the intention of solely embellishing their value as a heritage of the world. On the other hand, the final solution sees the Hellenic Republic, offering the rest of the metopes, currently displayed in the Acropolis Museum, to the trustees of the British Museum, through a triumphantly sacred ceremony, awarding the Parthenon Marbles the value they deserve. This could be the way that Greece would pay off its part of the moral debt towards the marbles’ honour and harmonious historical continuance - something that the trustees of the British Museum ultimately didn’t dare to do so.

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Thanos Adamidis

July, 8th 2020