Whether you are part of the museum world or not, you have likely heard of the controversy surrounding the Parthenon marbles. This summer, newspapers have been flooded with stories about these ancient sculptures, with a renewed fervor for restitution and apparent headways in the Greek cause. Housed at the British Museum, they have been at the center of debates over restitution. Their history provides a fascinating jumping-off point for discussions on how museums handle their history, especially in cases where past practices do not reflect 21st-century understandings of museum ethics. What, exactly, is the history of these works? How should we handle complex discussions of heritage and cultural ownership? How do societal moralities confront war and theft in “European-on-European” conflicts?
This past Sunday, comedian John Oliver covered museums in his deep dive on Last Week Tonight. He began by discussing the Parthenon Marbles, then moved on to focus on the issue of decolonization and restitution in European and American museums. This has brought renewed public attention to this issue, but over the summer months, we also saw a number of articles in museum and art publications discussing these same sculptures.
Art historian Eleni Vassilika wrote an informative article outlining her shift in perspective regarding the restitution of the marbles, while archaeologist Mario Trabucco della Torretta reiterated the right of the British Museum to retain them. The prominence of this debate can also be seen in the demonstration that took place in the British Museum on June 18, 2022, when protesters marked the anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens by demanding the return of the marbles. The protesters are not without allies in the British government, as several members of Parliament have also expressed support for their cause. The British Museum’s chairman, George Osborne, instead proposed alternatives to the unequivocal return of the marbles, suggesting a temporary loan or an agreement to “…tell both stories in Athens and in London.” This debate has led to numerous solutions being put forward, including providing copies for the British Museum to display, but ultimately it seems impossible to find an agreement that will satisfy all sides. Most recently, Prime Minister Liz Truss has spoken on the return of the Parthenon Marbles, claiming that she is entirely against it, seemingly putting an end to the potential collaborations proposed by Osborne. This speaks to the complexity of the issue and reveals how recent discussions on ethics and restitution place museum studies on the cusp of a new age.
A decree from the Sultan of Turkey granted Elgin free access to the Acropolis and assures his right to “tak[e] away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” (Casey) Elgin took this language with the loosest possible interpretations, giving himself permission to remove “hundreds of tons of sculptured material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures.” (Casey) Between 1801 and 1812, Elgin managed to place in his personal property 247 feet of the frieze that ran around the perimeter of the building, 15 metopes, and 17 sculptures from the pediment. Initially intended to decorate his house, after a costly divorce and rapidly mounting debts Lord Elgin decided to sell them (at a loss from the cost of transporting them from Greece to England) to the British Museum.
Criticism of Elgin’s removal of the reliefs and sculpture is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Elgin’s contemporaries criticized his wanton dismantling of the Greek site. The Monthly Magazine published an editorial that claimed that “many things which had been hitherto considered immovable have been torn away from the places where they had remained unmolested for thousands of years.” (Casey) Greece, an increasingly popular site for British Gran Tours during the years of Napoleon’s European conquests, was now stripped of one of its most admired monuments.
|A Brief Timeline of Greece and the Parthenon Marbles
|5th century BCE
|The Parthenon Marbles are created in the Acropolis in Athens
|Athens is conquered by the Ottoman Empire
|Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, is appointed as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
|Lord Elgin approaches the British government to gauge interest in creating plaster casts of the Parthenon Marbles, receiving a negative response
|Elgin begins removing the marbles from the Parthenon, moving them to Malta and eventually to England
|The Greek War of Independence begins against the Ottoman Empire; a revolutionary government named the First Hellenic Republic is established; the revolution is celebrated in Greece on March 25th as Independence Day
|The leader of the First Hellenic Republic is assassinated; the Kingdom of Greece is established under King Otto I
|The kingdom is dissolved; the Second Hellenic Republic is established
|The kingdom is restored under King George II
|A Greek military junta led by right-wing colonels takes over the government
|The Third Hellenic Republic (the current Greek government) is established
|Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture, formally asks for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles
|The Acropolis Museum opens to the public; it is built in part to house the Parthenon Marbles
Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss some of these topics at the “Crime and Spectacle: Theft, Forgery, and Propaganda” conference through the CMSMC. I later published a paper through the CMSMC based on my talk, titled “‘Conquête Militaire’: The Ethics of Restitution of the Louvre’s Napoleonic Legacy.” In it, I examined the issue of heritage and ownership in regard to Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, a Venetian work looted by Napoleon in 1797 and still housed at the Louvre today. Looting within the context of European wars is nothing new or unusual, and this makes the question of restitution and museum acquisition ethics even more complicated. While researching for this article, I reached out to the Louvre, and Chief Curator Vincent Delieuvin kindly replied, explaining:
“There are no discussions on repatriating these objects. This is part of the European history. In our countries, many places or museums have in their collection that kind of objects taken, in old times, during war. For example, in Venice, the cathedral of San Marco has many objects taken during the crusade in Constantinople.” (Delieuvin)
The Louvre is certainly not alone in maintaining this point of view, as the vast majority of European museums hold objects acquired through military conquests and plunder, or owned by a particular modern nation through the consequences of the ever-shifting borders of European territories. The question of the right of ownership and repatriation of art moved throughout Europe is thus difficult to quantify or apply a single, overarching solution to.
I finished my article by citing Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, and I want to do the same here. She wrote, “At some point, the history of your institution will disappoint you. Tell this history, and take responsibility for the past.” (Lee, 77) Often we see these discussions getting entangled in questions of legality, and we rarely stop to consider their morality. Museum professionals hold a responsibility to the objects and history they care for, and thus should consider the ethics of the provenance of their objects and act on it, without using the documentation or past, outdated principles to shackle objects taken unethically.
Bisi, Francesca. “‘Conquête Militaire’: The Ethics of Restitution of the Louvre’s Napoleonic Legacy.” The Coalition of Master’s Scholars on Material Culture, February 25, 2022 (link).
Casey, Christopher. “‘Grecian Grandeurs and the Rude Wasting of Old Time’: Britain, the Elgin Marbles, and Post-Revolutionary Hellenism.” Foundations 3, no. 1 (2008): 32–64.
Delieuvin, Vincent. “Research Questions – Wedding Feast at Cana,” February 12, 2022.
Lee, Lisa Yun. “Hope Is Not a Metaphor: An Annotated Guide to Twenty-Five Essential Skills for Museum Leaders.” In The Inclusive Museum Leader, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Chris Taylor, 75–82. American Alliance of Museums. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.
Article by Francesca Bisi
MA Candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University