Museum Security Network

RESPONSE TO THE GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDSON OF LORD ELGIN (plus responses by Marc Fehlmann and Anthony Snodgrass)


Full text:

Dear Dr. Opoku

For quite some time I have read with interest your postings on MSN and elsewhere and closely followed the heated debate on looting, illegal trafficking and restitution since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. Your opinion as to what is right and how the world should deal with cultural heritage appears to be very logical and clear, and in some cases I would certainly agree with your view. In the case of Lord Elgin’s actions,
however, you are utterly wrong – either due to your ignorance of the facts or because your position does not allow you to perceive historic events from a scholarly, i. e. ideologically untainted, or even cosmopolitan point of view.

In fall 2007, I studied large parts of the correspondence between Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and his Italian agent in Athens, Giambattista Lusieri, as well as his correspondence with William Hamilton, Lord Aberdeen and all the others involved in the removal of parts of the Parthenon Sculptures at Broom Hall (where the Elgin-family archives are kept). And I am currently working these findings into a book.

I can assure you that the idea of removing the sculptures from the grounds of the Acropolis and from the ruined Parthenon itself was first raised by Lusieri in a letter to Lord Elgin dated 16 May 1801, and ever since Lusieri has repeatedly reported the willful destruction of parts of the ancient monuments on the Acropolis of Athens by members of the Ottoman forces that were stationed there.

I can also assure you that Lord Elgin provided all necessary funds possible (presumably from his wife’s bourse according to Susan Nagel in her well-written and entertaining book on Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin) to his agent, to enable him to acquire the necessary equipment and to hire the required work force to remove selected items carefully.

Based on the documentary evidence which I found, I came to the conclusion that Lord Elgin had his agents remove the specimens from the Acropolis in the early 1800s because he believed that doing so would preserve them from further destruction. His intentions appear absolutely honorable, patriotic
and enlightened since he wanted to improve standards of British art and contribute to Britain’s greatness – aristocratic in the original meaning of the world (and not different from what the Marquis de Nointel wished to do for Louis XIV). I cannot see therefore what we gain from being judgamental and from constantly smearing the name of a historic figure whose achievement still felt today was to set-off the reception process of the Parthenon Sculptures. Without his will to have them removed – and to pay for it – the world would probably never have found out that they are, as Mary Beard once wrote, “worth quarrelling about.”

In my opinion – and based on my experience gained from working in a so-called source country – it would have been highly immoral for Lord Elgin, against his better knowledge to have left the Parthenon Sculptures on the Acropolis of Athens to the vagaries of time. It is therefore not a baseless argument to claim, that his actions helped to preserve some of the marbles from the Parthenon under better conditions than those that remained in Athens.

Similarly false is your assumption that “nobody except officials of the British Museum and their friends believe that the Parthenon /Elgin Marbles ‘are owned by us all, in trust for the world.’” As for your rhetorical “Tell this to the Greeks!” you might want to read Yannis Hamilakis’ The Nation and its Ruins. Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford University Press 2007), in which the author demonstrates how monuments from classical antiquity get monopolized by all sorts of people – but certainly not by the ones who created them. And then it would be interesting to know which UN- or UNESCO-resolution did actually demand the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, as you imply in your next paragraph. Have I missed something?

You obviously do not share the view that the large museums of the world, some of which have their roots in the 17th and 18th century, should keep their historically grown collections intact in order to continue the excellent and important work they have done so far if a modern nation state requests the return of some “unjustifiably taken object”. In doing so you seem to acknowledge that these collections also have holdings of “justifiably” taken objects. I only wonder who in your opinion is entitled to decide which of these items has been justifiably taken from source countries ages ago and which has not, and furthermore, what are the criteria for such decisions? Is your assumption not just as arbitrary as the arguments you claim to hear from those institutions that hold items of material culture in trust?

Claiming that the restitution of some works of art that have left their country of origin several generations ago to a current modern political construct would improve their impact on today’s world or undo old deeds is a fantasy. I must confess that I have always suspected, but could never get concrete proof, that the reasons for requesting the return of the Elgin Marbles by some politicians and scholars are more prosaic than academic, humanitarian or idealistic. I have also seen a lot of vanity-driven hypocrisy in this whole campaign: asking for the pieces in the British Museum but not for the ones in the Louvre, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg, and so on. Where is the logic? What unification would one achieve? Why destroy one gradually developed ensemble of world culture that for the last 200 years has played and continues to play such an exceptional role in introducing people from every corner of this planet to the cultures of the world? In this respect I find your next claim quite disturbing: “indeed the whole world, including the majority of British citizens hope that the
British Museum and the British Government will finally do what is morally and legally correct: return the Parthenon marbles to Athens!” (I love your exclamation marks). You may speak for yourself, but I seriously doubt that you should speak for the “whole world”, as I am inclined to believe that it is not only I who is convinced that the Elgin Marbles are fine where they are and that they should stay there – because the British Museum in its present form and history is arguably one of the most exciting and inspiring museums in the world and, as such, an exception.

I would also like to remind you that the Elgin Marbles were not looted, but left the Ottoman Empire with the approval of the then ruling authority, even if this appears unthinkable in today’s terms. Looting is something else. It is caused by two of mankind’s worst deficiencies: vanity and greed. It is this greed that leads to organized crime, which then leads to industrial-scale type looting of archaeological sites – and the destruction of archaeological data – for the financial gain of only a few. This greed also fosters corruption and hypocrisy among some of the responsible authorities in so-called source countries, while, when combined with vanity, it can sometimes lead to unwise and arguably unethical acquisitions by
dealers, private collectors and museums alike. We may enter a moral discussion about the events of the past, but we cannot change the principal forces of history. What we can do, however, by accepting history as a manmade sequence of events, is to do our best to prevent further mistakes on the “consumer side” and to minimize the damage done on the “producer’s” side. We should try to decrease the ongoing worldwide looting and loss of cultural heritage by educating the people living in source countries and by raising their awareness of what they lose when engaging in looting. In doing so, we make a clear distinction between current and recent looting and the sanctioned removal of ancient artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles, the Venus of Milo or the Great Altar of Pergamon. We should also acknowledge that the Elgin Marbles could only contribute so much to our understanding of the ancient world and the formation of Philhellenism which ultimately lead to the foundation of modern Greece, because they were brought to England in 1806. The British Museum assumed its responsibility and had a crucial educational role in this. It is therefore foolish, in an impulse of misguided post-imperial revisionism, to undermine one of the world’s oldest and greatest public collections, to request its dismemberment, and to continue wasting time, money and energy on demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, when there are many more urgent issues that desperately
need resources and attention.


Marc Fehlmann
Department of Archaeology and Art History
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Famagusta/ Gazimagusa, Norhern Cyprus
Via Mersin 10, Turkey

From: Prof. A.M. Snodgrass [mailto:ams1…] On Behalf Of
Prof. A.M. Snodgrass
Sent: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 10:32 AM
To: museum-secur…
Cc: tomfl…
Subject: Response to Marc Fehlmann

Dear Marc Fehlmann,

I haven’t met Dr. Kwame Opoku and don’t necessarily agree with every word that he writes, but I found parts of the opening paragraph of your response to him to be tendentious, insulting and finally arrogant, in your apparent assumption that a “scholarly, i.e. ideologically untainted … point of view” is something that you have and he doesn’t.

More vaguely directed, but just as offensive, are your accusations of “vanity-driven hypocrisy”. Oddly, you choose to exemplify this by pointing to the failure to ask for the return of the Parthenon fragments in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna or Würzburg, at the same time as those in London. What makes you so sure that no such requests have been made ? How do you think that the fragments previously in Heidelberg, Palermo and the Vatican have already come to be returned to Greece ?

“Have I missed something ?”, you ask at one point in your tirade. The answer is “Too many things to be listed here”. Perhaps one example will suffice: Elgin’s letter to Lusieri of 10th July 1801, making clear that initially his motive was not yet “to improve standards of British art”, but to beautify his newly-built house in Fife. One should not conflate results, or high-sounding afterthoughts, with true intentions.

What we as readers miss from your letter is any reference whatever to the aesthetic argument: that the pieces removed by Elgin make up somewhat less than half of what survives of the Parthenon sculptures, that roughly the same proportion is in Athens, now housed in the New Acropolis Museum and that numerous joins, within the same relief or the same figure, can be made between the two. These are matters of fact, not of opinion; their bearing on the case for reuniting the Parthenon sculptures is all the more important because they apply to so few other works of ancient sculpture.

You end with a fanfare about the indirect role of the Elgin Marbles, through Philhellenism, in “the foundation of modern Greece”. Apart from the ‘fast-forward’ pace of history that it implies, I would give anything to hear the view of Lord Byron* on this interpretation.

Yours sincerely,

Anthony Snodgrass
Chair, British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles

* In Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, (Ton Cremers)

Dear Professor Snodgrass

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts regarding my reaction to Dr Opoku’s posting. It was to be expected that those supporting the reunification of the Elgin Marbles with the remaining Parthenon sculptures in Athens would not appreciate my views. I regret, however, that my initial response to Dr. Opuku has apparently been lost in the trenches of the pro- and contra-restitutionalists; allow me therefore
to summarise as follows:

1. The honourable intentions of Lord Elgin’s agents and himself to preserve ancient masterpieces on the Acropolis by having them removed from their original context do, I believe, have to be acknowledged. It is a shame that since the publication of William St. Claire’s book, Lord Elgin’s investments and his workmen’s achievements are often described by restitutionalists as being driven by greed and dishonest intentions. Dr Opoku’s statements were unfortunately just another example of this stance. You must surely agree that the
material damage suffered by the remains in Athens from 1802 onwards (loss of surface, including the loss of whole faces through weathering, war and pollution) was avoided on the pieces that were brought to London. To describe in today’s world one action as vandalism – when, in fact, it contributed to the very preservation of the sculptures – while the undeniable neglect of the cultural heritage over generations is conveniently omitted – is at best a partial view (we need not agree on this last point).

2. To imply that large museums are only made up of stolen or looted artefacts and that an institution like the British Museum is deliberately holding back Old Master drawings that were looted during the Nazi era when, in fact, the British government is currently altering existing legislation to allow national museums to return such artefacts, is a gross overgeneralization. Not to accept that the British Museum’s mission to preserve the historical continuity and unity of its collection has any legitimacy is, in my opinion, erroneous.

3. To link the case of the Elgin Marbles again and again with the looting and illicit trade of the last forty years is simply wrong, both academically and legally. It smacks of propaganda. To spend so much time, energy and money on the restitution claim of the Elgin Marbles when there are more pressing archaeological matters such as the looting of sites, from the Nok civilization to the looting in Thessaly, is, in my opinion, rather misguided.

Let me now turn to the observations you have made concerning my response:

It may well be that requests of some sort (through diplomatic channels, informal dinners among archaeologists, and so on) for the return of the remains of the Parthenon sculptures in Austria, Denmark, Germany and France have been made, but no such official request has, to my knowledge, been published despite the Greek Ministry of Culture’s usual alacrity in announcing such moves. My assumption,
therefore, was based on information that may not be congruent with the information that you, as Chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, may well have.

My question as to whether I have missed something was clearly linked to Dr Opoku’s implication that the UN or UNESCO did pass resolutions to return the Elgin Marbles (I recognize that this is not what Dr Opoku literally penned). His sentence is, in my opinion, propagandist rather than scholarly. If you feel, however, the need to insult me because my personal opinions do not dovetail with yours on the abovementioned points, then you are either, at best, merely fulfilling your role as Chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, or at worst, confirming the hostile stance that scholars experience when not in agreement with a mainstream, pro-Greek opinion about cultural heritage (you may wish to have a look at my postings on looting in Cyprus).

Your claim that Lord Elgin’s original motive was not “to improve standards of British art, but to beautify his newly-built house in Fife” appears to refer to the letter published by A H. Smith in 1916,pp. 191-2. If you read it carefully, however, you will see that Lord Elgin gave the following instructions to Lusieri:

“that the Formatori should be able to take away exact models of the little ornaments or detached pieces if any are found, which would be interesting for the Arts. The very great variety in our manufacturers, in objects either of elegance or luxury, offers a thousand applications for such details. A chair, a footstool, designs or shapes for porcelain, ornament for cornices, nothing is indifferent, and whether it be in painting or a model [i. e. a plaster cast], exact representations of such things would be much to be desired.”

I do not know how you interpret this text, but I find it fairly straightforward.

With reference to the second part of your claim, permit me to cite the relevant text:

“The plans for my house in Scotland should be known to you. […] The Hall is intended to be adorned with columns – the cellars underneath are vaulted expressly for this. Would it then be better to get some white columns worked in the country, in order to send them by sea to my house? Or to look out for some different kinds of marble that could be collected together in course of time, and decorate the hall in the manner of the great Church at Palermo with columns all different one from another, and all of the fine marble – supplementing them with agates an other rare marbles which are found in Sicily, and which are worked in small pieces? […] In either case […] I have other places in my house which need it, and besides, one can easily multiply ornaments of beautiful marble without overdoing it; and nothing, truly, is so beautiful and also independent of changes of fashion.”

I do not see any reference to the sculptures from the Parthenon, and can certainly not detect any intention for having them moved to Broom Hall, but I am aware that this is a claim often made by the “restitutionalists”.

Regarding your next attack concerning the absence on my part of an aesthetic explanation, I do not believe that you require such an argument since the advantage of bringing together different fragments from the same monument is not contested, even at times when perfect facsimiles would be able to replace the missing originals in one place or another. I did not enter this aspect of the debate because it did
not form part of Dr Opoku’s text. I have no reason to question aesthetic arguments in this matter. What I do question, however, is the rhetoric in Dr Opoku’s mantra about the “evil” British Museum (which, as you must surely be aware, is not his first), and the reasoning behind his request for dismantling the British Museum’s collection.

Your concluding remark about Lord Byron’s hypothetical view of my opinion on the existing cynicism and hypocrisy in the (academic and political) establishment would indeed be interesting. I am glad that we agree on that point at least.

Thank you very much for your interest, consideration and time.

Yours sincerely,

Marc Fehlmann

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