Commentary – From national ownership to world heritage: A post-national turn in restitution politics?
The Memorandum on the Parthenon Marbles (2000) was the second official request submitted by the Greek government for the restitution of the architectural sculptures and parts of the monument held at the British Museum, which had been notoriously extracted by the then ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin and shipped to England between 1801 and 1811. The resumption of negotiations regarding the sculptures after the rejection of the first official motion presented in 1983 under the tenure of Melina Mercuri at the Ministry of Culture was largely facilitated by the resurfacing of the so-called cleaning scandal of 1937–38, that is, the unfortunate attempt — initiated by the museum’s donor Lord Duveen but not approved by the museum itself — to give the marbles back their alleged whiteness by treating them with copper chisels and abrasives (St Clair 1998, vi-vii, 281–313; Hamilakis 2007, 260–261). In 1999 a team of Greek experts was authorized to inspect the sculptures and assess the damage and subsequently the British museum held an international conference on the topic. The Memorandum was submitted a year later.
Structured in five parts, the text first states the historical facts around the removal of the sculptures, goes on to trace a short history of the claim for the return of the marbles and then presents the material »consequences of the dismantling of the Parthenon«, that is, the deterioration both on the monument and on its extracted parts, not only upon removal and transfer to England, but also under British stewardship. This third part, and particularly the assertions regarding the intervention on the marbles while in the British Museum, serves to counter the persistent accusations regarding the risk of deficient presentation and conservation of the ensemble in Greece due to the lack of proper museum facilities (cf. Hamilakis 2007, 262). The fourth part (»The Case of for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles«), which constitutes the core of the text, develops the main arguments in favour of the relocation of the sculptures to Athens, and is followed by the conclusions, which have been selected for this commentary. The text is accompanied by nine appendices with supporting documentation.
Every restitution request finds a good part of its legitimacy and strength of argument in its longevity and persistence: in other words, in its own history. Dating the Greek claims back to the time of the Greek War of Independence (1821–29), the Memorandum revisits key points of official negotiations and attempts to resolve the issue, including the British consideration of a return as a tactical move at the beginning of World War II; the first request submitted by the Greek Government in 1983; and Greece’s appeals to international fora such as UNESCO and the European Parliament. The particular emphasis accorded to this later point is crucial to demonstrate that the question of the so-called Elgin marbles is not simply a matter of major importance for Greece or in a Greek-British perspective, but also an object of profound international concern. This strategy of justification runs throughout the text.
Appendices 2 and 4, which accompany the section devoted to the historical background of the claim, bring together a compelling assembly of primary sources. Letters by Elgin and his staff are cited in order to expose their avidity and recklessness while at work on the Acropolis extracting the Parthenon pieces, or in order to prove the local communities’ special attachment to the sculptures and their reactions to the removal. In addition, the first unofficial demands for the return of the marbles by eponymous Greeks in the context of the War of Independence are documented, while further statements by prominent »British intellectuals and politicians« castigating Elgin’s acts are also meticulously collected. This emphasis on British condemnations of the sculptures’ deportation, thus demonstrating the support for the Greek case within the adversary’s own camp, is of course strategic.
The major argument of the Greek request for restitution resides in the claim as to the »uniqueness« of the Parthenon case (§ 4.1), based on the fact that the removed sculptures are integral parts of a still existing architectural monument characterised as the »emblem of the city of Athens«. The emphasis on the exceptionality of the case and on the inextricable embeddedness of the monument in the local context is of course always combined in this line of argument with the »universal significance« of the monument (as the text reminds us, the Parthenon was one of the first items on the UNESCO World Heritage List and indeed functioned as its logo). Most importantly though, the reunification of the marbles in Athens and the full restoration of the ancient temple is mandated by the need to comply with current standards of »historic presentation, protection and interpretation of the world cultural heritage«.
Starting in the 1990s, Greek state officials abandoned the argument of national ownership of the marbles which denounced Elgin’s actions as illegal and sought to reframe the question in terms of the ostensibly impartial realm of world heritage (cf. Hamilakis 2007, 262–63). As becomes clear in the Memorandum of 2000, the emphasis is now placed on aesthetic and scholarly issues related to the proper appreciation of the monument in its entirety and in its original setting. There is extensive discussion in the text (§ 4.2–4.4), backed by rich documentational material in the appendices, on the creation of the new Acropolis Museum as well as the major urban project to reunify the historical centre of Athens and the monuments around the Acropolis, which would assure the best possible experience of the monument as »accessible to all«, as well as the best preservation conditions and research infrastructure. This reframing of the case, which downplays the discourse of ownership to fall in line with a more neutral register of cultural heritage management, reflects a common form of justification. As the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot have shown with regard to public disputes, social actors tend to maintain a kind of distanced commitment, that is to speak not only in their own name or with reference to the present situation, but referencing a form of common good that transcends the here and now and raises the dispute to a level of generality (Boltanski, Thévenot 1991).
The text abstains from national rhetoric throughout – with the sole exception of the reference to the »Greek spirit« and to the Parthenon as »the epitome« of its »contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind« in the conclusion. The very adjective »national« is completely absent in the Memorandum of 2000. In contrast, emphasis on the Greek people’s attachment to the marbles, as a means of direct emotional appeal, was central in Melina Mercuri’s strategy — be it less in the official documents than in her personal statements during the passionate campaign she inaugurated in 1982. In an interview with the New York Times in 1984, responding to the question »Why only the Elgin marbles?«, she put forward quite a different understanding of the Parthenon’s uniqueness that was clearly imbued with national connotations:
Because they [the Elgin marbles] are the symbol and the blood and the soul of the Greek people. Because we have fought and died for the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Because when we are born, they talk to us about all this great history that makes Greekness. Because this is the most beautiful, the most impressive, the most monumental building in all Europe and one of the seven miracles of the world. Because the Parthenon was torn down and mutilated when we were under the Ottoman Turkish occupation. Because the marbles were taken by an aristocrat like Lord Elgin for his own pleasure. Because this is our cultural history and it belongs not to the British Museum but to this country and this temple. (Mercuri 1984).
While the idea of universal significance is not absent — though somewhat awkwardly expressed through the seven-wonders-of-the-world topos — the question of ownership and the illegitimate acquisition of the marbles clearly form the central line of this argument (cp. with the arguments of the official request of 1983: Greenfield 1996, 72). The legal issue is not neglected in the Memorandum of 2000, but it only appears as the final point of argumentation (§ 4.5).
An extremely interesting example of this now-abandoned rhetoric is Mercuri’s personal incrimination of Lord Elgin on the basis of his self-interest (»for his own pleasure«) and class-determined behaviour (»an aristocrat«). This personal emphasis and thus particularization of the dispute contrasts starkly with the logic observed in the Memorandum of 2000 which seeks to elevate the issue to a higher level of generality. The same emotional and particularizing ethos can be detected in some of the British reactions to the Greek request submitted in October 1983. During the hearings at the British Parliament, evoking the question of air pollution in Athens (at a time when there were still discussions about placing the sculptures back on the actual temple and not in the museum), Sir David Price denounced Greece as a historically inhospitable environment for the marbles and the Greeks in particular as unworthy, traitorous stewards:
Will my hon. Friend and the Government remind the Greek Government that—no Elgin, no marbles, no British museum no marbles? Will he also remind them that the present level of sulphur dioxide in the Athenian atmosphere is as destructive of what remains of the Parthenon as was the Venetian gunfire, the Turkish gunpowder, and the plunderers and marauders—the Greek people themselves—on the remains of the Parthenon in the past? (House of Commons Debates)
In a decisive departure from this culture of (legal) confrontation, the emphasis in the Memorandum of 2000 shifted, as becomes clear in the second paragraph of the conclusion, to notions of partnership and collaborative action, particularly in view of the contemporaneous major international events that the country was preparing to host, namely the Olympic Games of 2004 and its Cultural Olympiad.
The shift of the dispute towards a higher level of generality engenders what one might qualify as a post- or meta-national rhetoric. Nevertheless, the de-nationalisation of the restitution claim went hand in hand with a reactivation of the old anthropomorphising attitude towards artworks and valued cultural artefacts. The attribution of anthropomorphic qualities and emotive agency to artefacts, particularly those representing human figures, is a typical aspect of their pre-modern ontologies, which is extensively drawn on in cases of disputed cultural assets (Eck 2015). Records of pre-modern perceptions of antiquities in Ottoman Greece document, for instance, that locals considered ancient statues as animated beings (Kakridis 1967; Hamilakis 2008 and 2011; Gotsi 2015). During the nineteenth century these pre-national perceptions were reworked into the formative national discourse. In various expressions of popular culture, but also in forms of official rhetoric, the removed sculptures of the Parthenon are regarded as forcibly abducted and as exiled members of the national family, lamenting their condition and seeking to return to their home country (Hamilakis 2007, 278). The Memorandum itself resorts to the loaded metaphors not only of »dismemberment«, »mutilation« but also of »enforced exile«, which as a »cultural and moral injustice« now takes precedence over the legal injustice that the removal of the marbles represents. Thus, even if the new approach adopted in the Greek restitution strategy could qualify as post-national, it is clear that tropes of national discourse are still present, disguised as instances of anthropomorphising imagination. As Yannis Hamilakis has brilliantly argued, the downplay of the ownership argument in the official discourse »is not simply a tactical decision in the global negotiation of cultural economy, but a position that is consistent with the view that the marbles are not ›possessions‹ but living entities, members of the national family in exile and imprisonment; as such, they cannot be owned, they can only be treated as fellow members of the national body, in need of solidarity and compassion« (Hamilakis 2007, 281). Insisting on the metaphor of the »reunification of the Parthenon marbles in Athens«, the restitution claim appears as a »longing for completeness, a recollection of the national whole« (Hamilakis 2007, 284, 282).
Eleonora Vratskidou is Visiting Professor at the Institut für Kunstwissenschaft und historische Urbanistik, Technische Universität Berlin.
Sources and literature
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