Some thoughts on the #Parthenon Marbles as we move towards #colloquy13

Some years ago I visited both Delphi and Olympia for the first time. What impressed me about these sites was their unique geography, their aspect, their elevation and their atmospherics, all actively contributing to a special energy. The still quite substantial architectural remains are not merely a testimony to the genius of ancient Greek design and construction, but the dynamic relationship between complex forms, their functional and spiritual meanings and the biophysical processes operating at these sites.  A powerful energetic relationship revealing a deep understanding of the connection between place, biosphere and culture . Each site had a unique energy. Olympia in particular , was a place infused with energy, it was as if the ancients had purposely sought out a location with a unique intersection of forces and enhanced this with their design to produce a place well suited to maximum human physical endeavour.

Вид с холма Филопаппос в Афинах (Аттика, Греция) — Афинский акрополь. The Acropolis from Filopapou Hill by
Вид с холма Филопаппос в Афинах (Аттика, Греция) — Афинский акрополь. The Acropolis from Filopapou Hill by A.Savin. Lic. Creative Commons

For me, compared with Olympia, the Parthenon and the Acropolis as a whole have a more subtle yet deeper significance.  The prominence of recognisable forms, in part explained by the ubiquitous replication of the Parthenon’s geometry in so many of the world’s structures, and its beauty, is immediate and prominent. Visiting for the first time  it was quickly apparent that this is truly a global space. Yet this space is above all a uniquely Hellenic space with an amazing history, a space so valued that people were prepared to give up their lives defending it. This is no collection of artefacts, this is a place with a dynamic connection to the history of the Hellenic people and its immediate environment.

Walking over that smooth outcrop of marble above the Agora, the place where St Paul preached to the Athenians I was moved by a revelation of his sense of place and by the continuity of occupance rendered explicit in the smooth passage worn track. The entire precinct is a place of immense cultural and spiritual significance, it is a place of power.  Standing here allows one to integrate so much of what comes together,  in the passage of the breezes, the quality of light refracting colour, the glimpses of marble hills, the smell of pine trees and the sense of the antiquity.  All provides context for the architectural and sculptural presence of the Acropolis towering above. Wherever one stands within eyesight of the Acropolis similar interactions can be discerned. One of my favourite experiences is walking back from Filopapou Hill to Makrigiani as a full moon rises over the Parthenon.

While the Parthenon’s form has often been replicated, either in the attempts at complete reproduction or the reproduction of its essential architectural elements, all such attempts are removed from its context, from the deep ecological interactions that suffusing that context.

Basic facts on the Parthenon Marbles and the British Museum

There is no need to recount the narrative of the unauthorised and destructive removal of the Parthenon Marbles in detail. It is sufficient to recount the basic facts and restate the cultural problem that arises because of the BM’s intransigence on this matter.

The basic facts are these:

  • there is no original firman (official document with the force of law issued by the Sultan) authorising anyone to remove the Marbles, and it’s highly unlikely that one ever existed;
  • Elgin’s team removed the architectural elements from the Parthenon, an act that is in conflict with the elements on the Italian document that is cited as a translation of the Firman ;
  • the Marbles were mistreated and damaged first by Elgin and subsequently by the British Museum in its so-called cleaning operation;
  • the British Museum (BM) has shifted its ground over the years changing the rationale for holding the Marbles as the politics and technology of the time changed.

Changing arguments

Initially claiming that the Marbles had been saved from the Turks by Elgin, the British claim of legitimate possession, once Greece had been liberated, changed to one in which they claimed to be saving the Marbles from so-called Greek neglect and mismanagement. Then the argument shifted to Greece not having an appropriate place to display them.  Once the New Acropolis Museum was finished the rationale for appropriation shifted again to the World Museum defence.

This most recent iteration is a self serving notion, the BM asserting its retention of the Marbles, along with all the other objects it has assembled, allows comparisons between objects permitting judgements about the development of world culture and intellectual development to be more easily made.

Isolated from their dynamic context Parthenon sculptures become mere artefacts.
Isolated from their dynamic context Parthenon sculptures become mere artefacts.

Why one should accept the BM’s taxonomy of knowledge, or why the Marbles might be better understood when compared to the BM’s collection, isn’t fully established. Indeed, one can just as easily argue that the Marbles can be better understood in their historical context, in their place of power. Only here can they be fully understood. Currently the Marbles are displayed in an entirely inappropriate context, with the wrong lighting and with a complete absence of opportunities to understand them in their original context.

Public opinion in Britain has always been divided on the matter of the need to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Throughout the world there is a growing opposition to the BM’s stubborn refusal to return them.

The BM makes much of the fact that there is no entry charge to view the Marbles but conveniently remains silent on the fact that it merchandises them, selling copies, photographs and audio tours.  It even profits from the controversy surrounding the misappropriation of the Marbles, selling a variety of books on the subject.

The campaign for restitution of the Marbles

Despite the global recognition of the Parthenon as a symbol of democracy and of the Hellenic contribution to the world’s cultures, the campaign for restitution of the Marbles has been largely one involving the Hellenic diaspora and various cultural and intellectual elites. Now is the time to broaden out this base, to draw on its skills and insights involving a wider representation of people throughout the globe.

Effectively broadening the campaign requires a culturally sensitive approach that recognises and accepts that there are many paths working towards the same end. This campaign cannot be exclusive, it must be inclusive. Globally we must welcome people who are prepared to support the basic objective of seeing the Marbles returned to Greece.

In this age of globalisation, people throughout the world are taking initiatives. Vasilis Vasilopoulos for one, an engineer from Athens, established Repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles in Facebook Causes. It now has almost 57, 000 members.

In 2012 three “campaigning organizations for the Parthenon Marbles, from the UK, USA and Australia, convened in London(19-20 June) to launch the international colloquy on The Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, which was attended by leading representatives from four continents. Among the topics presented included the concept of the “Universal Museum”, issues of litigation, the Acropolis Museum, archaeological perspectives, and special tributes to Eleni Cubitt, founder of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and the late journalist, Christopher Hitchens, a friend and supporter of the Committee.”

The videos of the London Colloquy 2012 can be found here.

The Sydney Colloquy 2013 “Parthenon. An Icon of Global Citizenship

The International Organising Committee –AUSTRALIA – for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, has announced a further International Colloquy Parthenon. An Icon of Global Citizenship to be held in Sydney between 15-17 November 2013.

Both of these events continue what has been a major feature of the campaign,  face to face discussion, press releases, presentations and lectures. Beginning with the London Colloquy there has been a marked broadening of the campaign base making more extensive use of digital tools and social media that network and extend the mounting global outcry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s