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The last days of the ‘Elgin Marbles’

file photo: the parthenon marbles are displayed at the british museum in london
The Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are displayed at the British Museum

A wind of change is blowing through the museums of Europe

Just as the English think of Shakespeare as their very own, despite his universal appeal, the Greeks think the Parthenon sculptures are part of Greek culture and that despite their universal appeal, Athens, not London, is their natural home.

The marbles were sculpted on the friezes round the Parthenon by the sculptor Phidias in about 440 BC in celebration of Athenian life in the golden age of Pericles. Modern Greece is morally and culturally the successor state of Ancient Greece as well as of the Greek speaking Byzantium.

There was and still is a tension between the two. Classical Greece had gods and myths and great thinkers, Byzantium was Christian, monotheistic and not as broad minded as the ancients.

As a result of the tension between Classical Greece and Christianity and the conquest by the Ottoman Empire between 1458-1821 the temple of the goddess Athena at the Parthenon was neglected.

Then Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Sublime Porte Sultan Selim III, came along in the early 1800s and took away a large number of its sculptures: stole according to his detractors, saved for posterity according to his supporters.

He claimed to have a firman from the court of the Sublime Porte to dismember the friezes of their sculptures and ship them to Britain – the evidence suggests he has authority to take castes of statues, not to hack them off.  The Greek government does not accept Elgin acquired good title to the sculptures; indeed his fellow Scot Lord Byron wrote poems at the time lamenting Elgin’s plunder of the Parthenon.

The original firman Elgin relied on has never been produced. A firman was a kind of executive order – half administrative act half law –  written in Ottoman Turkish calligraphy that would have been in Arabic script. No such document has been produced in circumstances where if it existed it would have a counter part in the records of the Sublime Porte.

Lord Elgin shipped the sculptures to England and then purported to sell them the British government in 1836, which then gave them to the trustees of the British Museum. The British Museum claims it acquired lawful title to the sculptures but opinion is divided on the legality of their acquisition.

Nevertheless, erudite historians like Neil McGregor claim the marbles must have been taken lawfully and are against the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures. He is a great historian and a masterful broadcaster. His grasp of the broad sweep of history and his ability to spin a yarn exemplified in his history of the world in 100 objects series of broadcasts on BBC World Service is compulsive listening.

However, viewed with a huge amount of healthy cynicism there was method to his masterful delivery. The idea behind each programme was to tell the history of the world through objects from the collection at the British Museum from across the world.  His erudition is so refined you are lulled into accepting that the British Museum knows best how to curate the national treasures of other countries.

MacGregor had been director of the British Museum from 2002-2015 when he originally made his broadcasts.  During his time as director, he staunchly resisted the return to Greece of the Parthenon marbles. His arguments were served up as inspired by high moral principle about the universality of the national treasures of foreign lands. He claimed that the Parthenon sculptures are of universal importance that are best shown at the British Museum rather than by the Acropolis Museum of Athens in Greece.

MacGregor talks well but he does not persuade. The Greek government’s case is primarily a claim to a moral right to the Parthenon sculptures.  A classic case of restutio in integrum – the Parthenon marbles form an integral part of the Parthenon under an Aegean sky rather than the barren corridors of the British Museum bereft of their natural environs.

Greece has not claimed the return of the sculptures in a court of law because any claim for the return of the sculptures in private law is time barred; and a refusal to repatriate them in public law could not be challenged because the trustees do not have legal power under the British Museum Act 1963 to give away objects where the ground for doing so is that their acquisition may not have been lawful. A claim by some citizens of Athens in the European Court of Human Rights was rejected as being out of time – there was no decision on the merits, however, and neither has there been a decision in an English court that the lack of power to return national treasures in the Museums Act 1963 is compatible with the human rights convention.

But a wind of change is blowing through the museums of Europe like the decolonisation of Africa itself; national treasures acquired in colonial times and exhibited in the Museums of Europe are being returned to Africa. Museums in France, Germany and Belgium and now the Horniman Museum in London are repatriating objects stolen from Africa in colonial times.

The 2019 Collection Policy of the Horniman Museum is that the provenance of national treasures acquired in colonial times, even in cases where at the time of acquisition the transfer of ownership was lawful should be repatriated if by today’s standards keeping them would be perceived as unlawful or in violation of the moral rights of other states.

True to the above policy the Horniman Museum agreed to repatriate 72 Nigerian artefacts looted by British troops when they attacked the Kingdom of Benin – now part of Nigeria – in 1897.

The British Museum will have to adapt and develop similar policies to the Horniman Museum on national treasures of other countries in its collection, consistently with the prevailing zeitgeist, for as a museum it cannot exist on the wrong side of history.

Successive British governments refused to negotiate the return of the Parthenon sculptures on the ground that their return was a matter for the trustees of the British Museum. But if there were an agreement with Greece, the UK government would then have to pass a law in parliament to give effect to the agreement by adding a provision to the Museum Act 1963 whereby the trustees have the power to return the Parthenon sculptures to the Parthenon – at last we may be witnessing the last days of the Elgin marbles.

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge

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