The Parthenon Marbles and The Fallacy of the Universal Museum

Visiting both Delphi and Olympia for the first time some years ago and then returning again to the Acropolis made the unique geography of each site very apparent. Aspect, atmospherics, elevation, geology, latitude and longitude interact contributing a special energy to each location. The still quite substantial architecture remaining is not only a testimony to the genius of ancient Hellenic design and construction, but to the dynamic relationship between complex forms, their various meanings, functions and the biophysical processes operating at each site. So, removing any element from any of these sites immediately diminishes it’s meaning.

Athenian Treasury, Delphi. By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Athenian Treasury, Delphi.
By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
 Judging from the ubiquitous replication of the Parthenon’s geometry in so many of the world’s facades, it’s quickly apparent that it’s geometric language is readily understood across time and space, as well. Yet the space where it was created, the space it has occupied for so long is above all an Attican space and in the more general sense a Hellenic space. This is a space with a distinct history, a space so valued that people were prepared to give up their lives defending it.

By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
This is no collection of artefacts; this is a place with a dynamic connection to the history of the Hellenic people.

In writing this I don’t wish to encourage or condone nationalism but rather to search for meaning in the fullest sense.

A narrative of unauthorised acquisition diminishing meaning

When the Marbles were removed from the Parthenon, Athens was under Ottoman occupation. Legal authority was conveyed in Firman. These were legal documents written in Farsi and signed by the Sultan.

The narrative of the unauthorised and destructive removal of the Parthenon Marbles is simple and the basic facts are these:

  • there is no original Firman authorising anyone to remove the Marbles;
  • Elgin’s team removed architectural elements from the Parthenon, an act that is in conflict with the Italian language 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 ‘cleaning’ operation;

The British Museum’s Arguments For Retention

Over time the British Museum (BM) has offered various arguments for its retention of the Marbles. In summary these are that the Marbles:

➢ were saved from the Turks, something that requires absolute acceptance of Elgin’s rationale;
➢ were saved from Greek neglect and mismanagement;
➢ were better displayed in the BM as Greece had no suitable place to display them;
➢ are free for people to view in the BM unlike the NAM which has an entry fee
➢ are owned by the world not one country and, more people will see them in London
➢ are part of a new Universal Museum allowing comparison of objects from different parts of the world and so facilitating judgements about the development of world culture.

The mere fact that the arguments have changed over the years, exposes the paucity of the BM justification for retention. Eventually, after the other arguments have fallen away, we come to the universal museum argument.

Why one should accept the taxonomy developed by the BM reborn as the so called universal museum? Why might the Marbles be better understood when compared with the BM’s collection than in the NAM?  There has never been a convincing argument advanced for this nostalgic leap of faith into the lingering imperial twilight of the BM as a universal museum.

Understanding the Marbles in the fullest sense

I contend that the Marbles are best understood in their historical and biophysical context. Here they can be readily compared with the rich collections of Hellenic sculpture that remain. What is more they can be understood in their unique geographic context, in their Attican homeland with its unique sunlight and diurnal rhythms, in a landscape shaped by the very tectonic forces that have given rise to the magnificent Pentelic marble from which they are fashioned. Here the true brilliance of Pericles Athens and the creative forces that gave rise to so much innovation can be more fully understood.

If there is need to compare the Marbles with other antiquities arises in the BM then augmented reality techniques and contemporary holographic laser and 3D technology is such that the museum could provide visitors with a portable representation of the Parthenon Sculptures.  This could be a far richer experience than anything yet attempted by the BM, a walk through digital gallery with touch technology conjuring up genuine comparisons between the worlds great cultures in a virtual world.  The merchandising opportunities are immense, partivularly with the rapid innovations in 3D printing.

At best the Universal Museum is a self serving fallacy designed to find further justification for the retention of materials removed from other lands at the height of Britain’s imperial power and permit the BM to continued merchandising and monetising the Parthenon Sculptures.

Were The Marbles Obtained Legally

In making these comments I don’t seek to endorse current initiatives directed at seeking the return of the Marble through litigation. There is little scope for this beyond amending the British Museum Act of 1963. It is still clear that the Marbles were obtained in a manner that failed to accord with accepted legal practices in the Ottoman Empire.

Director of the BM Neil MacGregor argues that Elgin removed the Sculptures lawfully. He conveniently avoids the absence of legal documentation by alleging that the documentation had to be surrendered at the time of export. Interestingly he doesn’t refer to the export document as a firman. An Italian translation of the so called firman has been used in the past in an attempt to prove that Elgin was authorised to remove and export the sculptures. The document in question is actually a poor translation of an Italian translation of what is alleged to be the original Ottoman document.

It now seems almost certain that Elgin’s documentation was not a Firman but merely a letter purportedly signed by Kaimmakam Seyid, Abdullah Pasha, the Deputy to the Grand Vizier or Yusuf Ziyauddin Pasha.

Important in any discussion of legality is the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a theocracy governed not by legislative bodies but my sharia law. Under this system of governance authority to interpret the law was vested in the Sultan. He was also able to issue decrees, provided they were consistent with sharia. These decrees were known as Firman.

A valid firman must contain the following elements:

  1. The emblem of the Sultan, his official seal or tugrah

    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
  2. An invocation to God or da’vet tahmid

    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written  above the tughra.
    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written
    above the tughra.
  3. the Sultan’s monogram;
  4. mention of the officials to whom it was addressed;
  5. specific and formal phrasing; and,
  6. the date according to the Hijri calendar set out in full.

The document used by Elgin in an effort to establish his authority before the House of Commons enquiry in 1816 did not contain these features.

Neil MacGregor also maintains that moving large pieces of marble would have been difficult and obvious and implies that this is an indication that Elgin’s actions were approved. In fact there is no evidence that the authorities understood what was contained in the shipment at the time.

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