BY SUSAN EMERLING | AUGUST 21, 2009
The culture war between antiquities-importing countries and those whose soils harbor archaeological treasures has flared up again. This time, the battle isn’t over recently looted artifacts returned by a chastened American museum to their country of origin. Instead, it is over the June opening of Athens’ New Acropolis Museum (NAM), which, in addition to housing an eye-boggling cache of art and artifacts found on the Acropolis, was built with the wishful premise of someday housing what the British refer to as the “Elgin Marbles.” These are the late fifth-century sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th-century by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, and acquired by the British Museum in 1816.
Although there are certainly entrenched political and legal obstacles to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece — chief among them, the British Museum’s claim of rightful ownership — the elegant, state-of-the-art concrete and glass-walled NAM, designed by Swiss-born New York-basedarchitect Bernard Tschumi has put to bed long-standing concerns over Greece’s ability to safeguard and exhibit the stones, should they ever return to its shores. Despite its persistent refusal to consider the restitution, even the British Museum seems to have tacitly acknowledged the suitability of the NAM by offering the marginally sincere three-month loan of the marbles in exchange for a renunciation of Greece’s ownership claims. (The Greeks ridiculed and rejected the offer.) But amid all this posturing, does the construction of the NAM signal the beginning of a shift in the repatriation debate, which might affect museums around the world that are caught in similar conflicts over contested objects? Although not all archaeological source countries have the resources to build such an unimpeachable museum, the issue of restitution for works of art might increasingly be decided less on whether these source countries can legally reclaim their own antiquities — but whether, ethically, they should.
The Elgin Marbles represent approximately half of the surviving works of art from the Parthenon. Almost from the time they arrived in England, the Greeks and the British have been engaged in a painful, imperial-era playground spat that goes something like this: “You took them from us. Give them back.” To which the British have replied, “No, they’re ours. The Ottoman Empire said we could have them.” Unable or unwilling to resolve the dispute by mutual agreement, the merits of the case have been loudly debated for nearly two centuries in the court of public opinion. Romantic poet Lord Byron launched the first salvo with his immensely popular narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was published almost simultaneous to the British ownership claim:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
In 1982, when the Acropolis was first proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Greek superstar Melina Mercouri, an actress and politician, made an impassioned plea for the return of the marbles. Two years later, the Greek government made a formal complaint to UNESCO for restitution of the stones from Britain, with the meager result of a repeated and unactionable suggestion that the two sides come to an unspecified “amicable settlement.” Despite the fact that the Greeks have maintained their noisy bereaved posture, for whatever reason — either the lack of an appropriate venue to hear a case or uncertainty about the outcome — they have never pursued their grievance in a court of law. Instead, they built the NAM to make their architectural, aesthetic, and ethical argument for reuniting the Elgin Marbles with the other elements of Parthenon statuary that have remained in Greek hands.