For some 17 years now I’ve been engaged in the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
In that time I’ve often visited the British Museum and the outstanding new Acropolis Museum, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. On my most recent visit, I encounter an audiovisual display exploring some of the unique features of the Parthenon Frieze.
I wasted no time in capturing a few moments of the display on my iPhone. Apologies for the poor quality images
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.
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.
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:
The emblem of the Sultan, his official seal or tugrah
An invocation to God or da’vet tahmid
the Sultan’s monogram;
mention of the officials to whom it was addressed;
specific and formal phrasing; and,
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.
Late last year I attended an international gathering, the 2nd Colloquy on the Parthenon Marbles titled Parthenon an Icon of Global Citizenship. My contribution focused on ways of employing the tool kit of 21st Century digital strategies in teaching about Ancient Greece, and about the Parthenon in particular.
My aim was to demonstrate opportunities for Constructivist and Connectivist approaches employing 21st Century digital tools. My curriculum focus was the new Australian National History Curriculum, but this approach can be applied to any systemic or school based curriculum. Augmented reality apps and the opportunities inherent in effective use of Google Drive were highlighted in the second part of the presentation.
At the outset I must declare my bias. I firmly believe that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece. They were not legitimately acquired. They have been placed in gallery where they are interpreted in a manner that is unable to acknowledge, or address, their original and dynamic relationship with the entire work from which they were stripped.
Recently the British Museum has been attempting some retrospective justification of this stripping away of the Sculptures’ meaning by applying a new taxonomy. A self-serving exercise this reframes the Parthenon Sculptures as a valuable part of a Universal Museum. Unfortunately, this recent iteration merely imposes a form of imperial taxonomy on the Sculptures and many other exhibits in the BM.
So my work is partisan, but the digital techniques I’ve demonstrated are entirely transferable and might be applied to any area of curriculum.
Here is my presentation. Sorry about the sound quality.
It’s not often I have the privilege to read matters analysed from a legal perspective. Certainly, subjecting Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon Marbles to detailed analysis is of a more than passing interest for me. So, it was with great pleasure that I read Theodore Theodorou’s reassessment of Elgin’s activities through the lens of a letter from Robert Adair, British Ambassador to Constantinople for the period 1809 to 1811. Adair’s posting covered the latter part of the period, 1801 to 1812 during which Elgin’s agents were removing sculptures from the Parthenon.
My concern, since first listening to George Bizos on the matter, has been whether any of the Firman issued were actually genuine documents at all. This concern is prompted by the simple fact that no originals have ever been produced by Elgin, the British Parliament or the British Museum.
Theodore Theodorou presents an extremely well argued analysis of the basic legal position surrounding Elgin’s acquisition. He sheds a completely new light on the matter, for me.
His contribution heightens my resolve to keep working for the restitution of the Marbles. I urge all readers to visit Theodore’s website.
There are some other beautiful elements of Theodore’s website, in particular the several images of 17th to 18th century embroidery and some miscellaneous historical objects, forming part of the Theodorou collection.
Last night the new website of the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles, was launched at the Athenian Restaurant, Sydney. Designed by Dennis Tritaris from Orama Communications, I believe it represents a new standard in website design. Dennis has created a website that has the potential to make full use of Web2.0 tools to mobilise the truly global nature of this issue, connecting those of us who care about restitution without regard for national borders. The new website is an expression of the international focus of the Australian committee.
Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is probably the world’s most well-known cultural property dispute.
A professor from the University of Crete has called into question the sole document that the British Museum has found in recent years to support its legal ownership of the Elgin Marbles, reports the Times of London.
According to the museum, the 1801 document is an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman, or license, in which the Sultan’s grand vizier was authorized to permit the Earl of Elgin to take the sculptures. Elgin took the marbles between 1801 and 1805, and Britain’s argument has long been that the move was legal, because he asked for permission from the Turks, whose empire ruled Greece at the time. They also say that he saved the sculptures from likely damage and deterioration during the Greek-Turk conflict.
But Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, a specialist in Ottoman law, now says that the original firman, on which the translation is based, could not have been legal, because it is missing the Sultan’s emblem and signature, and an invocation to God. Dimitriadis claims that, by law, only the Sultan could issue a valid firman.
There’s not time to cover the entire range of legal opinion on this blog, but in essence many lawyers point to the absence of any legitimate documentation sanctioning Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon.
Far deeper than legalities
Of course the matter is far deeper than legalities. My friend Emanuel J Comino AM often reminds me of the significance of the Parthenon as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the city-state of Athens, birth place of democracy. This is really the heart of the matter. All would do well to consider the gravity of the Elgin’s act which in cultural terms is an affront to the city-state that gave us the very notion of democracy. This temple of Athena was the centre of a state that developed the very foundations of a political system that so many of us take for granted and that our Greek friends are privileged to hold as a centre in their cultural tradition. The inner strength afforded by such a noble history is constantly revealed in Hellenic character and traditions. Such strength can be observed in the ability to retain a cultural focus despite Τουρκοκρατία (Turkish rule) from the 15th century until the declaration of Greek independence in 1821.
The removal of the Parthenon Marbles is an affront to these traditions and an affront to democracy. In case we are in any doubt about the nature and character of that democracy, I leave the last word to Pericles. In his funeral oration for those who fell defending Attica from the Spartans he wrote:
“For our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbours; we are a model to them, not they to us. Our constitution is called a democracy,because power rests in the hands not of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all in their private disputes;
and as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement, nor do we make out choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence;
we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, especially to those that give protection to the oppressed and those unwritten laws of the heart whose transgression brings admitted shame.”
“We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without effeminacy.
We differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless; we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”
In a word, I say our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and that our citizens yield to none, man by man, for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limbs and brain.
Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today. We need no Homer or other man of words to praise us”.
“For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught”.
This was a press release that I sent out on behalf of the International Organising Comittee – Australia – For the restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles.
11 November , 2009
The issue of the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles continues to be the world’s most celebrated cultural property dispute. Since Lord Elgin took them their history has been the subject of both neglect and controversy. Now in the British Museum they’ve been rendered mere artefacts in a distinctly British construction of world history and their place in it.
Removing great works from their cultural context and displaying them in gloomy spaces is a distinctly 19th century approach to knowledge. It is particularly sad when these brilliant works are acknowledged globally as expressions of the very heart of Greek culture. The real tragedy of their exile in a foreign setting is in denying the world an opportunity to see them in the very place that gave them ‘life’.
In Athens the new Acropolis Museum has been built to display theses irreplaceable masterpieces, close to their original setting. Here, aligned as they were on the Parthenon, it will be possible to view these unique Hellenic Sculptures in a completely holistic context.
The real history of the Parthenon Marbles is an extraordinary story, far more interesting than their sombre display in the British Museum can possibly suggest.
Founder of the first organised committee to campaign for the Parthenon marbles return, his contribution to the campaign has been unwavering since the Committee’s foundation in 1981. In 1983, Melina Mercouri asked the Committee to provide all the support it could to the newly formed British Committee. In 1997 similar support was given to the new American Committee and in 2000 the New Zealand Committee.
Emanuel speaks to a wide range of International conferences and seminars in places as far a field as Athens, New York, New Zealand and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Global interest in restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is now benefiting from a growth in the number of organisations campaigning for their return including Facebook support groups.
The International Organising Committee-Australia-For The Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (EST. 1981) in conjunction with AHEPA and The Greek Australian Professional Association, invite you to attend at AHEPA Hall Rockdale next Sunday.
Ring 95884144 or 0418204466 for further information.
Russell L Darnley OAM