Friday, November 14, 2014

Greek Cultural Reply to British Museum Rudeness

This response to British Museum Director Neil MacGregor’s recent comments on the Parthenon Marbles in the Times is very well-phrased and argued, I reproduce it in full from the Elginism blog: with apologies but I think such a text should be as widely seen as possible. I think most readers will conclude that it pretty conclusively demolishes the BM's self-serving arguments.

Greek Ministry of Culture: Response to comments made by Neil MacGregor in an interview in the Times on 7th November
1. UNESCO, which has invited the Greek and the British Governments to take part in a mediation process to resolve the issue, is an intergovernmental organization. However, the Trustees of the British Museum are not part of the British government. It is the Trustees and not the Government that own the great cultural collections of the country.
UNESCO is indeed an intergovernmental organization. It is hard to believe that a Government would discuss an issue it does not have competence on. It is hard to believe that if there were political will from the UK for the return of the Marbles to Greece the BM would resist this will. Negotiations conducted all those years with the good services of UNESCO were between the two States (Greece and the UK). Yet, a BM representative was always there. In any case the links at all levels between the BM and the UK Government are well known. Returns have already been effected in Britain on the basis of changes in the law such as the enactment of the Human Tissue Act 2004. This Act enabled the return of human remains located in UK museum collections (under the same status as the one applying to the Marbles). Those were unethically removed from Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans and were returned to their countries of origin. In this light persistence in formalities can only be used as an evasion of the real issue.

2. The Marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London rather than going to a new museum in Athens.
“Maximum public benefit” should not be seen in the light of the BM’s interests alone. This patronization of ‘benefit’ makes one think that the BM has still not shaken off the mentality of colonization. It is prime time for the BM to consider its humanistic role, depart from issues of ‘ownership’ and ‘property’ and focus on the actual benefit of the antiquity itself, of the visitors, researchers, archaeologists, historians and all those who have an interest to see and study the Marbles as a whole. The issue is not which Museum is better to accommodate the Marbles. We do not run a beauty contest. It is all about where the Marbles and the values they incorporate can best be exhibited and appreciated respectively.

3. In Athens they could only be part of an Athenian story for the Parthenon is not even a Greek monument. It is an Athenian monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.
One should bear in mind that the BM as such is mainly the beneficiary par excellence of British colonization. Therefore when one engages in accusations one also has to look into one’s own injustices of the past.

4. 30% of the sculptures are in Athens and 30% are in London. Quite a lot of them no longer exist. There is no possibility of recovering an artistic entity.
It is indeed true that parts of the Marbles are missing. One should first think of the tremendous damage done to the Marbles when they were removed by Elgin from the Acropolis site and shipped to Britain. Mentor (the ship that carried them) sank and the Marbles remained in the sea and some of them on the beach under stones and seaweed for two whole years. The Marbles also suffered from being transferred by various vessels to ports in England. Also in 1937 for a whole year and a half (while in the BM) the Marbles’ surface was scraped in order for them to become white and lose their patina.
The fact that parts are missing cannot be used as an argument for not reunifying the existing parts. Is the “either all or nothing argument” a new tendency in archaeology? In this case the BM should eliminate all incomplete artifacts in its collection.

5. The marbles were not illegally removed by Elgin. He had to surrender the document allowing him to take the marbles as he exported them. Everything was done publicly.
One wonders which records the BM refers to. Nothing was done legally, let alone ethically. Elgin was not authorized to remove the Marbles. He acted without official authorization as the Sultan was the only authority (and the sole owner of all important antiquities within his jurisdiction according to the law of his time), which could issue such a document (firman). Elgin had in his hand an amicable letter of a low ranking Turkish official, which gave access to his team for drawing casts and take only a few stones found on the ground. Even this document expressly referred to the fact that no damage should occur to the monument itself. Elgin used bribes in order to complete his mission and jagged the Marbles from the Temple using saws to remove the surface from the rest of the architectural part.

6. The Trustees have always been ready for discussions with the Greek government but the latter will not recognize the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.
References to the matter of ownership are misleading and are used to deflect the discussion from the actual issue. The issue is not about ownership but about where the Marbles can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Although the Museum claims that the Marbles belong to everyone, in fact the Museum implies that they belong to it. UNESCO has officially invited in August 2013 the UK Government (including the Museum) to enter into mediation with Greece for the resolution of the matter. The UK can place the issue of ownership on the table of mediation if it so wishes. The UK has still not even replied. One wonders how much goodwill can be found in this indifferent stance. Replying to an invitation of an internationally renowned forum is not only basic good manners but adhering to the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes. This makes anyone think that it is not conversations that are difficult; only parties can be difficult.

7. These sculptures do belong to everyone. Letting them be seen in different places and not only in Athens is important.
That is indeed true. They incorporate the values of classical Athens and Greek identity and as such form part of the world heritage. The issue though is where they can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Exhibiting them in different places conveys half of the information (if not the wrong information) of the values they carry. How can an artifact (any artifact) broken in pieces be properly assessed, valued and interpreted, if parts of it are seen separate instead of as a whole? This is especially so if something was conceived, created and exhibited as a whole in its original context. In the case at issue it is not only the antiquity that is split apart but also the fact that it is not found in its original context. This argument defies any logic and is there only to serve the purposes of the BM. It is even more weird that the argument is used by a leading institution in the museum world to serve its own purposes when this argument is unknown in the area of cultural property law and relevant international treaties. It is a long and well-established principle that antiquities should be preserved and exhibited (even in situ where this is possible) as a whole respecting their integrity, whilst when broken this constitutes a crime. How does this act (or any argumentation to its favour) differ from the vandal acts in Afghanistan or Syria?
The point about the wording of the (conveniently lost) 'firman' is important, on it hinges the whole legality argument, and cutting through the idiotic, 'ev'rybody saw it happen and di'nt stop it, so must've been legal then' argument better suited to the BM's partner metal detectorists than a responsible flagship cultural institution, but then do not both very well illustrate the depths to which 'British culture' is sinking? Note the subtle dig in point six referring to the actual aim of the existence of UNESCO - building peace in men's minds. That's not exactly what the BM is up to at the moment.  I also appreciate the point made about the all-or-nothing approach which also annoyed me, the response to that one from Athens is a cracker. I think  that round goes to Athens, back to you BM Trustees.... what nonsense arguments will you come up with next? 

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