Respect, even reverence, for the past has inspired Graham Binns to take up causes involving cultural history. In the 1950’s, he chaired a committee that oversaw the restoration of a 17th-century theater in Malta. Since the early 1980’s, he has lectured widely on the repatriation of the Greek antiquities, and he is currently chairman of The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. A traveler himself, Binns has a special interest in the travel writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mr. Merryman’s article is presented as an argument in which one side appears to be balanced against the other in terms of strict legality, a process by which unarguable fact is led by irresistible logic to an inevitable conclusion. But in reality his arguments are heavily weighted and tendentious. I admit that I, too, am biased—but biased by what I consider right and proper.
What this controversy boils down to is that there is a great, though battered, building of legendary significance and that it was wrong to wreck it further by sawing off and taking away great sculptured chunks of it. No amount of doubtful hypothesizing about what might have happened if it had not been wrecked is going to excuse the wrecking. To try to do that is to argue like a boy who has kicked another child’s sandcastle: “Well, the sea would have got it if I hadn’t kicked it!”
Nor am I impressed with Mr. Merryman’s reliance upon doubtful legalities. One could employ these sophistries to argue that because Hitler’s Nazis were legally elected, the legislation they introduced was illegally opposed by malcontents possessed of irrational and Byronic enthusiasms.
I am more concerned with the present and the near future than with stirring the pot of the Elgin Marbles’ past misfortunes. But in order to put the present campaign for restitution in perspective, it has to be said that it has been continuous on both Greek and British fronts since the Elgin dismemberments began. And, since 1975, a continuing program to conserve the treasures of the Athenian Acropolis has drawn on every resource of the Greek state, winning the admiration of successive assemblies of international archaeologists.
The new museum to be built at the foot of the Acropolis is related to this program. All the artifacts belonging to the Parthenon and the sculptured marble that cannot be left upon it will be displayed in this museum. Here is space for the so-called Elgin Marbles. (Phidias, their sculptor, would surely have something to say about that label!)
These marbles are not “spectacularly displayed” in the British Museum; they are poorly lit, placed along the inside walls of the Duveen gallery. The new museum in Athens is designed so that the marbles can be mounted appropriately, around the outside wall of a Parthenon-sized space. But more important is the concept that all the pieces relating to the Parthenon should be held in that museum. The museum will have a great “eye” window looking directly up at the Parthenon. Rather than leaving a significant proportion of the sculpted marbles in a museum 2,000 miles away from the monument to which they relate, all the pieces could then be studied together, in situ.
From a commonsense point of view, it is far preferable to see the entire Parthenon in Athens than to see the skeleton of it in Athens and the flesh of it in London. To me, that case is compelling. It is, however, a practical rather than a moral argument.
The moral and aesthetic case is that the sculptures are not freestanding statues or adornments, but integral parts of the Parthenon’s structure. Together, they will complete a concept that celebrates the achievements of the Athenian polis, not only its victory over the great power of the day (the Persians), but also its political, social, technical, philosophical and artistic development. This one building stands both as a crowning achievement of the ancient city-state and as a symbol of modern Greece to Greeks today. It is an idea as well as a building. Without it, Greece lacks a dimension; the “idea” of Greece is incomplete without the marbles.
What Elgin did was regarded as doubtful in his own day, let alone now. The Select Committee of the House of Commons, which considered his case at the time, tended to overlook the circumstances of the acquisition. The committee was more concerned with preventing its European competitors from acquiring antiquities from the corrupt and decaying Ottoman Empire, which would very soon be out of Greece. 031Elgin’s permit was a firman couched in quite ambiguous terms, which Elgin clearly exceeded. Mr. Merryman suggests that what Elgin did was justified by later ex post facto firmans. To quote from an authoritative book by Jeanette Greenfield (The Return of Cultural Treasures [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996]), this argument relies “upon the subsequent acts of ratification by the Turkish authorities to overcome any arguments about those actions in excess of the original terms of the firman. In particular there were said to be two such instances of acquiescence, namely the issue by the Sultan of additional firmans addressed to the voivode and disdar of Athens, in which he generally sanctioned what those local officials had done for Elgin While these events are referred to in correspondence, there are no authentic original documents in existence.”
The moral considerations, says Mr. Merryman, are those of Elgin’s time and place. It would be unrealistic, he says, to conclude that the removal was morally wrong.
Mr. Hammersley, who spoke in the 1816 parliamentary debate, did not think so and condemned the dishonesty of the transaction. Mr. Babbington, speaking in the same debate, did not think so either. He thought that the manner of the acquisition “partook of the nature of spoliation.” Mr. Serjeant Best conceived that Lord Elgin had not acted as he ought to have done. In short, the moral validity of Elgin’s actions was, and is, very much open to question. As Christopher Hitchens (author of The Elgin Marbles: Should They be Returned to Greece? [London: Chatto & Windus, 1987]) now asks: “Can we continue to justify an act—the amputation of sculpture from a temple—that would be execrated if committed today?”
Mr. Merryman is concerned that if the principle is established that works of foreign origin should be returned, then the major Western museums will be drastically depleted. But we are not talking about a general dispatch of museum collections. The relevant UNESCO resolution refers specifically to those treasures that best represent a country’s culture and that form part of its cultural identity. Successive ministers of culture and the president of Greece are on record as insisting that all they wish to have returned to Greece is “the severed part of our most revered national monument, the Parthenon.”
Mr. Merryman claims that the marbles have entered British culture. “They help define the British to themselves, inspire British arts, give Britons identity and community, civilize and enrich British life, stimulate British scholarship.” Tendentious and emotive language indeed! More prosaically, there can be no doubt that the marbles greatly influenced the classical revival in architecture during the 19th century. But the emotive language might, perhaps, have been better applied had our Anglo-Saxon sculptures been removed to Greece. I quote from a leader in the London Times, April 6, 1992: “For the Greeks the marbles have a unique resonance; the Parthenon is a symbol of the cultural unity and continuity of their nation: Greece’s Crown Jewels. The value of the marbles to Greece is incomparably greater than it is to the British. Yet the Trustees of the British Museum have long argued that their responsibility to preserve them is inalienable and to return them to Greece would open the floodgates of endless demands for the return of cultural artifacts that would leave their display cases bare.
“There is clear distinction between valuable artifacts and treasures of intense national significance. If historians and antiquaries cannot tell the difference, then somebody else should do so for them. There are few objects so closely bound up with a nation’s sense of identity as the marbles.”
Michael Dummett, then Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, dealt succinctly with the “floodgates” argument: “There are, in fact, a very small number of demands, and it is highly probable that the great majority of them—perhaps all—are justified: if all were met, the museums of the west would indeed be deprived of some magnificent possessions, but their functioning as representative collections would in no way be impaired. In the unlikely event that it came to be threatened by a spate of demands from every side, it would become necessary firmly to refuse the greater part of them. A frequent argument for refusing all demands now is that to accede would set a precedent. If this means that we ought not to do the right thing in one case, because we should then have to do the right thing in others, the argument is contemptible; if it means that we ought to refuse just demands because otherwise we shall be pushed into accepting unjust ones, it is cowardly.”
“The question,” opines Mr. Merryman, “was not whether the marbles would be taken, but by whom Since removal of the marbles was bound to occur does moral blame attach to one who did the inevitable?” This is an argument that would justify the expropriation of property one does not own, on the grounds that if one did not do so another burglar would have taken it anyway.
Pace Mr. Merryman, I am primarily interested in seeing my countrymen act with generosity of spirit and with the kind of vision that allows them to overlook the awful hump of precedent. How marvelous it would be to see all these sculptures coherently arranged in one place, just a stroll away from the Acropolis. We have the missing pieces in London. Have we got the spirit to give them back?
Respect, even reverence, for the past has inspired Graham Binns to take up causes involving cultural history. In the 1950’s, he chaired a committee that oversaw the restoration of a 17th-century theater in Malta. Since the early 1980’s, he has lectured widely on the repatriation of the Greek antiquities, and he is currently chairman of The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. A traveler himself, Binns has a special interest in the travel writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Mr. Merryman’s article is presented as an argument in which one side appears to be balanced […]