The Complicated Ethical Dilemma Surrounding the Placement of the Parthenon Marbles

Jeremy Barragan

            Throughout history, the concept of cultural patrimony has been a large part of why cultures have been able to form a sense of identity that lasts throughout time.  As immaterial heritage and traditions are passed down through generations, so are the art and artifacts that cultural groups consider essential to their collective identity and uniqueness.  These objects give these groups a shared sense of belonging amongst one another, and when they are separated from the cultural regions, the group can be left feeling incomplete. 

            In this era of globalization specifically, our cultures have become increasingly intertwined, and art is one of the ways that we can separate ourselves from one another and remain diverse.  Although it seems obvious that the artifacts remain with the communities that created them for the foreseeable future, there is much debate that this should not always be the case.  Archaeological sites are too often pillaged, and the preservation of the art is occasionally compromised, whether by means of natural process, or even deliberate human destruction.  As artifacts and monuments are damaged, so is the culture of their surrounding communities.  If the preservation of the art is truly important, many feel that they should be removed and preserved elsewhere, and that they should be appreciated on a larger scale, among art from other diverse cultures.    If the pieces are removed for the sake of their preservation, many question whether they should be returned in time, but doing so will deprive the museums that have housed them of their trademark exhibits, and the pieces will have less exposure on a global scale.  In the proper setting, they can be studied continuously, and compared to international pieces of art,  giving society a better understanding of the art and its impact on other cultures. Although they lose their original meaning by the artist’s intent, they gain other meanings in the process.  That said, the art will not be allowed to be admired in its organic setting, among the ancestors of the people for whom it was intended  Thus, the questions arises: Does the art belong to the culture, or does it belong to civilization as a whole?

            This is why the Parthenon Marbles are on the forefront of cultural patrimony debate.    When the history of the marbles is taken into consideration, more legitimate arguments can be formed on both sides of the debate.  In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was able to get a permit from the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece. Elgin then proceeded to remove a collection of the surviving statues from their Parthenon home to Britain.  The collection included 56 pieces of its frieze, 15 metopes, and 17 pediment sculptures.  While many likened his actions to vandalism or looting, it is important to note that the statues were failing to be preserved and had already undertaken considerable damage in their Parthenon home, which itself was damaged by a gunpowder explosion under Venetian rule, but also damaged further during Elgin’s removal of the statues.  In 1816,  Elgin was able to persuade the British Government to purchase the Marbles to be stored in the British Museum, where they have been on display to this day.  However, Greece began disputing the British ownership of the Marbles after gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Greece has been carefully restoring the Acropolis since 1975 and now has the facilities necessary to properly store the artifacts. 

            That considered, The Acropolis Museum is incomplete without the Marbles in their rightful place, which has been designed to house the absent Marbles as they appeared on the original Parthenon. Britain is obviously opposed to this, as millions visit the trademark display each year, free of charge.  Removal of the Marbles would greatly diminish the Museum’s repertoire, and consequently, the Museum refuses to cede ownership to Greece.   The underlying controversy is that Britain illegally took the Marbles from Greece without the consent of Greece, and although they are in better condition as a result of British protection, they can now safely be returned to their original environment, unified with the surrounding works of art rather than fragmented.  Other countries have opposed the fragmentation and separation of the pieces, and museums in America, Germany, Sweden, and the Vatican have returned artifacts to the Acropolis, but Britain refuses to follow suit.

            While they did obtain the items illegally, there are many arguments in favor of the Marbles staying in London.  If the Marbles were moved to the Parthenon, the British Museum would be without its trademark exhibit, which is what allows the Museum to draw such crowds that come free of charge.  On the other hand, The Acropolis Museum charges 20 Euros (nearly equivalent to 20 U.S. dollars) for admission.  Without a doubt, crowds would converge to see the absent Marbles initially returned, but there is little chance it would attract as many visitors as the free British Museum over time, resulting in less overall exposure for the art. Also to be considered is the current placement, which allows the pieces to be compared to other works. The British Museum gives a better understanding of the cultural achievement that the pieces are,  and presents them in a fashion that allows visitors to see the connection between the Marbles and future works of art.  Rather than confine the Marbles to a specific place, amongst only visually similar works, we can see how Greece influenced visual culture as a whole. The art also looks significantly better in the British Museum Duveen gallery than it would have if it remained in an Ottoman munitions area, and Britain deserves moral attribution for keeping the pieces intact. Returning the artifacts would set a precedent for other museums to return other artwork, which would hurt the number of visitors they are able to attract as well.   Currently, by the legal principle of limitation, which prevents claims from being pursued after a specified period of time, Greece could not present a case because Elgin had permission from what was the ruling government when he obtained them.   Despite the moral issue with the Marbles being taken without the consent of the Greek people, the British Museum Act also states that in order to protect the collections, institutions cannot legally return items from the collection, regardless of how they were obtained.

            On the other hand, it has been over two centuries since the Marbles have seen their original home in Athens, and ending the animosity with Greece in regards to the artifacts would be a substantial gesture by the British Museum.  Although they have not been opposed to lending the Marbles to The Acropolis Museum, they refuse to do so as The Acropolis Museum wishes for them to cede permanent ownership.  Since the other museums have already returned artwork to Greece, they feel it is only right for The British Museum to follow suit.  The Greek campaign is centered around the idea of returning the art permanently to the original environment, where it can be truly appreciated in its designated home for a cohesive look at the works that it accompanied.  Since much of the art and many of the pieces were intended to be viewed all together, rather than broken up and fragmented, they feel returning the artifacts would allow visitors to appreciate them in the original context.  Although they do not have legal traction, they hold to the notion that the artifacts were taken illegally, and regardless of whether or not someone else ruled the area at the time, it remains a symbol of Greek culture, and is wrong from a moral and artistic standpoint.  That said, the legality of Elgin’s acquisition of the Marbles has also been questioned.  Many experts suggest that the document signed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire is fake, and if it is legitimate, translations suggest that Elgin did not have permission to physically remove the items.  Overall, London kept the art safe during the wars, but they have also undergone damage during their time there, as pollution harmed the sculptures throughout the 19th century and the British Museum’s attempts to clean them caused irreversible damage.  The Acropolis Museum is fitted with state-of-the-art technology that will preserve all of the sculptures, and fill the voids left by the sculptures while presenting them in their intended arrangement, exactly as they would have been on the Parthenon.

            Arguments aside, the art itself comes from the Classical era, and is a remarkably impactful aspect of visual culture.  The art is formal and restrained, but also an extremely accurate depiction of life itself. This is evident in the pediment sculptures from the east end of the Parthenon.  The pediment sculptures were created by Phidias from 447 to 438 BC from marble.  In order to fit the shape of the pediment, all of the gods and goddesses had to be constructed to fit the triangular shape on each side of the temple that was the pediment.  The sculptures are  characteristic of life itself, and there is much respect for the motion and beauty of the human body.  Their stabilization and balance, contrapposto, gives them more of a life like appearance, despite the loss of limbs and heads on most of the figures.  Their drapery is extremely detailed and appears responsive to the viewers.  In the sculptures, there is considerable attention to the vitality of humans and variety of the human experience, as the various human and animal figures interact with one another.

            When all is considered, one must question whether or not it is actually more fulfilling to see the works in their original setting than their current one.  While there are obvious voids at the Parthenon, if the artifacts are taken away from the British museum, a worldwide audience will be deprived of seeing the art in the chronological manner that truly expresses the cultural achievement that these sculptures were.  The British Museum has been the most popular attraction in London for nine straight years, attracting nearly 8 million people per year (The British Museum).  Last year, however, The Acropolis Museum attracted just over 1 million people (The Acropolis Museum).  Although from a visual standpoint it is more satisfying to see the Parthenon presented as it was intended, the sheer audience and attention it garners at the British Museum warrants that the pieces stay put.  Even though the visual has been diminished to a degree, and the pieces have lost some of their original meaning, they have gained an entirely new purpose, one that should not be neglected.  In its current setting, its impact is realized amongst other works of art, and the exposure it garners allows future generations to realize the true impact of the Greek art.  Although the focus tends to be on Greek culture, what is ultimately at stake is visual culture as a whole. To ensure our civilization recognizes the impact of these works on a worldwide scale, the best place for them is The British Museum, where millions from around the world will continue to see the artwork.  The Parthenon Marbles were created in Greece, but they do not belong to only Greece,  they belong to everyone, as we are all a part of visual culture.  For visual culture to continue to progress, we must develop an understanding of the objects passed down to us that define our culture, and the Parthenon Marbles should continue be exposed to a worldwide audience in order for our civilization to develop the understanding that the Marbles deserve.     

Source List

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This paper was prepared for the course “Visual Aesthetics” (COM 2500; S17).  For the assignment there was of a choice of a NYC museum exhibition review (from a list of several current exhibitions), or a report on a current debate and efforts related to cultural patrimony concerning objects of art. -- Dr. Jody B. Cutler