Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Will It Work? Greece Is Willing to Loan Archaeological Treasures in Exchange for the Parthenon Marbles

Ancient Origins

Despite a strong desire to return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home in Athens atop the Acropolis, the Greek government decided against taking legal action against the UK last year. Some probably though the battle for the marbles was lost, but now Greece is using another approach – they are offering ancient archaeological “jewels” in exchange for the Parthenon Marbles.

 Greece Proposes a Generous Offer to the UK
In another attempt to find a peaceful solution, Greece has invited the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles, also known as Elgin Marbles, as a parabolic act in the battle against the anti-democratic forces that keep rising all over Europe, seeking the dissolution of the continent’s unity. The Greek government has the magnanimous offer to consistently loan some of Ancient Greece’s archaeological wonders to British institutions in exchange of the precious Parthenon Marbles.

The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum, London. (public domain)

How the Controversy Began and the Parthenon Marbles Became Known as the “Elgin Marbles”
As Ancient Origin’s writer Mark Miller thoroughly analyzed in a previous article, when the British Empire’s power was at its peak and Greece was under Ottoman rule, many artifacts and artworks, including reliefs and statues from the Parthenon in Athens were taken to Britain. For years, Greece has been trying to get those valuable artifacts back.

In the opinion of very few historians (mostly British), Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, took those marbles legally when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. He claimed that he got permission from the Ottomans to take the artwork. However, few historians agree that such an act was legal during periods of slavery and occupation, so the question is: how moral and ethical would this be considered in our contemporary Western World that supposedly values freedom and democracy more than anything?

An idealized view of the Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. (Public Domain)

Almost two hundred years after Elgin’s act, the Parthenon Marbles remain some of the most controversial artifacts in the British Museum, with more and more British people suggesting that the Parthenon Marbles should return to Greece. Similarly, opinion is divided regarding Lord Elgin. For some he was the savior of the endangered Parthenon sculptures, while others say he was a looter and pillager of Greek antiquities.

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, from where the marble friezes were taken. (public domain)

Between 1930 and 1940, the Parthenon sculptures were cleaned with wire brush and acid in the British Museum, causing permanent damage of their ancient surface. In 1983, Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture for Greece, requested the return of the sculptures, and the debate over their return has raged ever since. The controversy around the Parthenon marbles is just one among many concerning artifacts the British took, or some say stole, during the British Empire’s reign.

Detail from the Parthenon Marbles. (Chris Devers /CC BY NC ND 2.0)

A Solution Said to Help Western Culture’s Democratic Values
Lydia Koniordou, the Greek Minister of Culture and Sport, thinks that a civilized and democratic solution on this long-lasting controversy would send a message about Europe’s devotion to democracy during a time that many European countries – including Greece and England – are witnessing the uncontrollable rise of far-right forces and nationalistic parties. As Ms. Koniordou told Independent:

 “The reunification of the Parthenon Marbles will be a symbolic act that will highlight the fight against the forces that undermine the values and foundations of the European case against those seeking the dissolution of Europe. The Parthenon monument represents a symbol of Western civilization. It is the emblem of democracy, dialogue and freedom of thought.”

Greece has been restoring the Parthenon for many years now and has also constructed a new, impressive museum, specially designed to exhibit the sculptures, even though more than half of them are still held by several museums in Europe.

View of the replica west and south frieze of the Parthenon. (Acropolis Museum)

Professor Louis Godart, the newly elected chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), made a statement, as Independent reports, where he pointed out the imperative need of these precious artifacts to finally go back home:

“It’s unthinkable that a monument which has been torn apart 200 years ago, which represents the struggle of the world's first democracy for its own survival, is divided into two. We must consider that the Parthenon is a monument that represents our democratic Europe so it is vital that this monument be returned to its former glory.”

It is also worth noting that during Elgin’s years in Greece his staff removed the sculptures so violently and inelegantly that the heads of a centaur and a human in a dramatic fight scene are in Athens, while their bodies are in London. Preservation of art? Probably not the best words to describe this act.

Top Image: The left-hand group of surviving figures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, exhibited as part of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Source: Andrew Dunn/CC BY SA 2.0

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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