By Nick Gier, New West Unfiltered 7-28-09
Once again the Greek government has demanded that the Parthenon Marbles, better known in imperialist circles as the Elgin Marbles, be returned from the British Museum to the Greek people. The stunning new Acropolis Museum has just opened, and there is a gallery where a plaster copy of half the famous frieze waits to be replaced with the original.
Noting that the Greeks had previously been amenable to a generous loan policy, the British journal The Economist states that “the Greek government risks driving museums everywhere into clinging to their possessions for fear of losing them. If the aim is for the greatest number of people to see the greatest number of treasures, a better way must be found.”
In 1801 Lord Elgin did get permission from the Ottoman authorities, but the legality of this transaction has been disputed. Many other famous museum collections, however, do not have even a veneer of lawful justification.
During the excavations at El Armana from 1911-14, Ludwig Borchardt of the Imperial German Institute for Egyptology pulled off one of the most amazing deceptions in the history of archaeology. Borchardt had found the head of Nefertiti, considered to be the one of the most beautiful examples of ancient Egyptian art.
Borchardt was determined to have Nefertiti for the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where she now resides. He prepared a doctored photo of the bust that put it in the worst possible light, and then described it to Egyptian authorities as a plaster bust rather than the painted limestone that it actually is. The deception worked.
Yale University and Peru’s government remain locked in their long battle over the disposition of 40,000 artifacts removed from Machu Picchu from 1911-1915.
Eliane Karp-Toledo, Peru’s former first lady and archaeology lecturer at Stanford University, is a major critic of Yale’s claim to the items, discovered by amateur archaeologist and later U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham.
At a talk at Yale last month Karp-Toledo presented excerpts from Bingham’s letters in which he admitted that everything belonged to Peru and that the artifacts should be returned. This is the position of the National Geographic Society, which supported Bingham’s three expeditions.
A memorandum of understanding that was signed by both parties in 2007 now appears to be null and void because the Peruvian government has renewed legal action against Yale. Many Peruvians join Karp-Toledo in objecting to a provision that would allow Yale to keep those items “not of museum quality” for 99 years.
Yale claims that their experts need more time for research, but the Peruvians want to make their own evaluation of the objects. They are also angry at Yale’s professors in their presumption that only they can do proper research on others’ cultural treasures.
The Economist’s position that if some artifacts are returned then there will be a world-wide request for objects is alarmist, and it ignores the plain fact that only a few cultural treasures are in dispute.
Some say that the Lord Elgin saved the Parthenon Marbles from the acid rain of 20th Century Athens, but the Greek half of the frieze is actually in much better shape than the British half. British conservationists, seduced by the faux classical ideal of pure white marble, scraped off what remained of the original paint and the honey-colored patina of the Pentelic marble.
British public opinion has long held that the marbles should be returned, and a recent unscientific poll conducted by the Guardian found that 94 percent of its readers supported repatriation. At a February 2008 Cambridge debate on the issue, the Greeks won by a vote of 114 to 46.
It’s high time that Nefertiti’s beautiful head goes back to Egypt, and that the two halves of the greatest symbol of democracy are reunited on the Acropolis.
Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read or listen to his other columns at www.NickGier.com