A Devil’s advocate

or: the arguments of the British Museum haven’t got a leg to stand on

During a recent interview to the London Times, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, made some remarks regarding the Parthenon Sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles, after the man who removed them from the Parthenon and shipped them to Britain) which inflamed Greek public opinion.

Being one of those inflamed by his remarks myself, allow me to spend this post answering some of his arguments (below in italics):

“It’s not even a Greek monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.”

  • Mr. MacGregor obviously refers to the known fact that the Athenians, whose city was head of the Delian Alliance, being managers of the Alliance’s joint fund, used part of that money to supplement their own in building the Parthenon. Whereas this fact is mentioned by ancient historians, nowhere is there any mention of reactions by the Allies regarding the use (or abuse) of the fund by the Athenians. Any reactions mentioned came from opposing factions within Athens itself. Of course the allies had reacted, about seven years before, to the transfer of the fund, from Delos, to Athens itself, but this had nothing to do with the Parthenon, whose construction had not even been decided upon. That can only mean that the director got his facts wrong. To assume otherwise, ie a deliberate twisting of historical veracity would be unthinkable for a man in his position.
  • What percentage of allied money was used to build the Parthenon and whether the allies reacted against that is irrelevant to whether the sculptures should stay in London or be returned to Greece. However, the use of this as an argument is indicative of the Director’s way of thinking, who interprets history to fit his purposes. It is also indicative of his lack of other arguments to support his claim to the marbles.
  • No matter what money went into building the Parthenon, the director cannot possibly claim that the Parthenon is not Greek. It is as Greek as the art and architecture of other localities sharing the same language, culture and religion. Mr. MacGregor chooses to ignore that the temple incorporates Ionian and Doric elements found in Greek-speaking communities of the time, ranging from Southern Italy to Asia Minor. He also disregards the fact that the legends pictured on its sculptures were known and recognisable throughout the Greek world. He also conveniently forgets that the Parthenon itself was a landmark which influenced greatly Greek art in the centuries after its construction. Its appeal and its later interpretation by modern European culture have turned it into a symbol of Greek culture – undoubtedly with a generous dose of idealisation. Were it not so, its sculptures would not be now adorning the British Museum.
  • Mr. MacGregor probably has not realised that in fact his words doubt the existence of a Greek civilisation. If the Parthenon is not Greek but exclusively Athenian, then the Greek tragedies are not Greek but Athenian too, written by an Athenian, to be played during a local festival and watched by other Athenians. And what about Socrates. A Greek philosopher or simply an Athenian one? In this vein one could say that Olympia is not Greek, as it belongs to the area of Elis; Sparta is Laconic, Delphi Phocic. Shall we go on?

“Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.”

  • This remark alone is enough to make my blood boil. First, allow me to express my doubt at the notion that Lord Elgin removed the marbles to “protect and study them.” If protection was what he had in mind, he wouldn’t have sawn off the sculptured face of the stones, having first removed in no gentle manner any architectural members that lay above them. Nor would he completely disregard the fact that the stones he hacked off were actual bearing parts of the building, whose stability suffered as a result.
Parthenon marbles British museum

The Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. Notice how thin the slabs are – to facilitate shipping, only the sculpted face of the stones was removed, leaving the remainder of the stone behind. Photo from here.


Parthenon marble, sawn off by Elgin

Traces of Lord Elgin’s activities on the Acropolis: on the stones which made up the frieze traces of saws are still clearly visible, where their sculpted front sides were removed. The removed parts can be seen today at the British Museum; the remainder are on the Acropolis.


horsemen from the Parthenon frieze

One of the stones making up the frieze that ran all around the Parthenon (northern side, slab XXXIV, figures 89-92). The scene shows a “master of ceremonies” turning back to wave to some riders to come along. Another rider, who has already galloped ahead, turns back to see if the others are following.


  • Secondly, how dare Mr. MacGregor compare the forcible and damaging removal of the sculptures by Lord Elgin with the careful and meticulous work done today by the dedicated employees of the Greek Ministry of Culture? A simple visit to the Acropolis or its Museum is ample demonstration of how Greece protects its art and how the British nobleman did. The sawn-off faces of the stones making up the frieze are the first indication, but if that is not enough, a comparison between the photos of the sculptures at the British Museum before and after their brutal cleaning in 1938 will do. The sculptures in the Acropolis museum still bear the marble’s patina and traces of their original colouring; in the British museum all that rich surface has been scrubbed away for the sculptures to conform to the notion that Greek marbles ought to be pure white.


The Parthenon sculptures after their 1938 ‘cleaning’ at the British Museum. The ‘cleaned’ parts of the frieze shine bright white, next to the darker, ‘uncleaned’ parts. Photo from here.

The Parthenon sculptures after their 1938 ‘cleaning’ at the British Museum. The ‘cleaned’ parts of the frieze shine bright white, next to the darker, ‘uncleaned’ parts. Photo from here.


“When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture”

  • This, to my mind, is the most dangerous of all of the director’s arguments, that an item’s meaning and value are altered (and enhanced) when it is removed from the whole it was once part of. To put it bluntly, Mr. MacGregor claims that, before their shipment to Britain, the sculptures of the Parthenon were ‘reduced’ to being ‘merely decorative’ elements of a temple. Once in London, he claims, they gained their own ‘independent’ value and meaning and became part of a larger story, that of the human body in world culture. So, in Athens the sculptures were neglected and doomed to a playing second fiddle to the temple’s architecture, whereas Lord Elgin and the directors of the British Museum realised their true value and interpreted them in the ‘correct’ way. If the director’s argument is carried to its logical conclusion, then any work of art designed for a specific role can be removed from its original position so that its artistic value may shine unimpeded.
  • Mr. MacGregor’s argument is especially dangerous in view of the latest wave of rampant looting in the Middle East, China and elsewhere. It could be well used to justify the destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria, Iraq and several other countries, provided that the looted artwork is put in a new framework of ‘aesthetic appreciation’ and ‘historic and artistic narrative’. On the basis of such claims it would be justifiable to cut off the heads of the moai, the huge statues of Easter Island, and ship them to some big-city museum. After all, who on earth sees them out there in the Pacific? It would probably be of great benefit to art lovers everywhere if we cut off the sculptures off Hindu temples too, because how can one properly appreciate them up there on the roof? And how about those gargoyles of Gothic churches?
  • Let me make my own claim then, that the clockwork mechanism of the Big Ben in London should be removed. It is evidently not British, as it was it paid for with money from British colonies. Doomed to function as a mere detail of the building of the British Parliament it is obviously wasted, while being accessible only to British citizens, not to the international community. As its present location does not allow the public to view the intricacy of its mechanism, I propose its removal to an international museum of technology like, say, the Deutsches Museum. There it will be properly appreciated by all as a miracle of 19th century technology and countless visitors may reflect on Great Britain’s valuable input in the technological progress of mankind.
  • It is my sincere hope that Mr. MacGregor did not intend to foment present or future cases of looting of cultural treasures. Yet his words can easily be interpreted to such a purpose, as shown by the fact that his interviewer thought it necessary to clarify the matter. The director answered with an example that may seem logical, yet bears no relation to the Parthenon or Elgin’s actions. Let us see it:

 “If artefacts acquired the same way as Elgin acquired the Marbles were offered to the BM today, wouldn’t modern ethical guidelines prevent their acceptance? MacGregor refutes even this, pointing to what he considers to be a present-day parallel. ‘The BM excavates in Sudan today at the invitation of the authorities,’ he says. ‘Αnd the Sudanese authorities allow us to keep some of what we find.’ ”

  • First of all, conducting an excavation after being invited by a government to do so, following all due legal and scientific procedures, is a far cry from what Elgin did in Athens in the years 1801-5. The British ‘nobleman’ did not conduct an excavation to bring to light artefacts hitherto unknown, nor did he deliver the finds to the local authorities (perhaps keeping a small part as a reward for his labours). On the contrary, he removed known works of art from known monuments, causing significant destruction in the process, much more than the simple removal of decorative elements.
  • Second, and correct me if I’m wrong, Sudan is not under occupation by a foreign power at the moment. At the time of Lord Elgin’s activities, Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, same as a large part of Europe was under the Nazis in WW II. If buying European art from the Nazis is considered a war crime (and stolen artworks are returned to their legal owners), how can Lord Elgins’s dealings with the Occupation Forces of the time be considered legal?
  • It was impossible that the lord did not know that the country was under occupation, as several (failed) uprisings had already taken place. Sixteen years later, another would grant Greece its independence.
  • Third, the only available document provided by Lord Elgin is an Italian translation of what he claims was the Ottoman decree (one wonders why an official Ottoman copy was not made; the Ottoman archives are available and incredibly thorough). Yet even in this document’s careful and detailed wording, nowhere is there mention of removal of sculptures, decorative or not.

To defend the legitimacy of the sculptures’ removal, Mr. MacGregor uses another argument:

“Everything was done very publicly, very slowly. In 1880 (sic) you couldn’t move great slabs of marble quickly. At any point the Ottoman authorities could have stopped it.”

  • In other words, if an activity takes a long time and is visible to several witnesses, then it ceases being illegal? Perhaps the Ottoman authorities could stop Lord Elgin, but they did not. Perhaps the Italian authorities could stop the Mafia, whose crimes have been going on for decades, and have countless witnesses, but they have not. Does this make the Mafia legal? I do not say that Lord Elgin was a member of the organised crime, I am merely stating that the authorities’ failure to stop or arrest someone does not constitute a valid argument of whether his or her activities are legal or not.

I am of course well aware that as an experienced and successful director of a prestigious museum (and a lawyer to boot) Mr. MacGregor has to protect the image and prestige of the institution whose care was entrusted to him. I only wish he didn’t need to insult our intelligence in the process – or give a hold to modern looters of antiquities.


Note 1: the initial article of the London Times can be read here, but only by subscribers. Luckily, it may be found here too, in its entirety, at the bottom of the page. The parts of this post that are in italics are excerpts from the original. For an official answer of the Greek government see here, but for a more eloquent answer watch Stephen Fry, a well-known British actor, speak his mind without mincing words. If by any chance you think that all of Elgin’s contemporaries agreed with his actions, read the views of one of his compatriots and peers, Lord Byron, here (for a brief synopsis, here).

Note 2: this post is a translation of its counterpart published in my Greek blog when still current. Various claims on my time prevented me from translating and posting here it in time. Things have moved on since Mr. MacGregor’s interview: the British Museum has now loaned one of the Parthenon sculptures to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (I found about it here), and has announced its plans to loan others to museums in various parts of the world – everywhere it seems but Greece itself. To me, this is nothing but a statement: put simply, the Museum flaunts its possession of the disputed artefacts and declares, in no uncertain terms, its intention to keep them and do with them as it pleases.

One comment on “A Devil’s advocate

  1. Pingback: Photos of the week: A statue in exile | Aristotle, guide in Greece

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