NEW YORK – The Eastern Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) presented The “Elgin”/Parthenon Sculptures Controversy Panel Discussion online on May 22. The event was held in Association with AHEPA’s Hellenic Cultural Commission.
Lou Katsos EMBCA’s President /Founder and AHEPA’s National Cultural Commission Chairman introduced and moderated the fascinating discussion. The distinguished panel included Professor Othon Anastasakis, the Director of South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX); Author/Poet Nicholas Alexiou, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Hellenic American Project at Queens College; Architect/Lecturer/Artist John Fotiadis; DeeGee Lester the Founder/President of the U.S. branch of the Hellenic Institute of Cultural Diplomacy and former Director of Education at the Parthenon in Nashville, TN; and Professor Sydney Van Nort of City College of New York, M.R. Cohen Library Director of Archives and Collections.
Katsos said: “There has been an ongoing controversy of over 220 years relating to Lord Elgin’s removal, starting in 1801, of sculptures from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures including pieces from the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike, all inside the Acropolis. This includes the legality of their removal from Athens, the reaction during that period including the strong objection from Lord Byron who denounced Elgin as a vandal.”
The discussion focused on the background, the acquisition, the legality, and the rational of debate for and against the Parthenon/Acropolis sculptures return, as well as issues transcending right or wrong, and some areas and research not frequently discussed about the topic.
“The British government has agreed this past week to talks on the repatriation of the ancient Elgin Marbles which could see the artifacts brought back to Hellas and campaigners for the Marbles’ return have shared their delight at this latest update,” Katsos said. “Still talking and returning are two different things as the English Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport leading the talks with the Hellenic Republic, have said that the UK’s long-standing position on the issue ‘has not changed’ while the British Museum stated that they would not be taking part in these UNESCO-backed talks.”
“EMBCA does not agree with the Hellenic PM proposal in November that the sculptures could be ‘loaned’ by the British Museum in an artifact exchange but that rather they should be returned,” Katsos said, noting that “The National Herald/Ethnikos Kirix weekend magazine for May 14-15 was dedicated to the return of the Parthenon/Acropolis Marbles and had excellent articles by various scholars on the topic.”
“In EMBCA’s full page ad that appeared there, we equated the Acropolis Marbles as metaphorical slaves from the Ottoman period which were given their master’s name ‘Elgin’ and boarded on ships over a ten year period (1802-1812) and that they have been in captivity in London in a foreign land, enslaved among strangers and wanting/ demanding to be returned to the land of their creation and cultural heritage – Hellas,” Katsos pointed out, adding that “our metaphor related to The Greek Slave sculpture (sculpted in 1844) a very famous work by the American sculptor Hiram Powers. It is one of the best-known and critically acclaimed American artworks of the nineteenth century which affected the American Abolitionist Movement, and is among the most popular American sculptures ever. We brought up The Greek Slave statue and its influence in a couple of EMBCA panel discussions relating to the Greek Revolution and its affects on the American Abolitionist movement.”
Lester spoke about the upcoming events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Parthenon in Nashville, the full-scale replica created by the city of Nashville in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. After other structures built for the exposition were torn down, the people wanted to keep the replica Parthenon, but by the 1920s it was in terrible shape, said Lester. Through the efforts of local architect Russell Hart, a more permanent structure was built of concrete and opened in 1931. The Nashville Parthenon’s permanent collection includes 14 casts of the original Parthenon Marbles that were purchased in the 1920s from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Fotiadis noted that arguments for keeping the Parthenon sculptures in London are “hollow” and “these sculptures belong back in their place of origin.”
Professor Alexiou pointed out that none of Elgin’s actions were legal. He also referred to Edward Said’s book Orientalism, published in 1978, in which Said argued that the distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’ emphasizes the supremacy of the Occident and the inferiority of the Orient. In this case, the northern European, Anglo-Saxon superiority over the southern European. Alexiou also mentioned the fascination with classical Greece that led European artists and thinkers in the 1800s to identify personally with “the glory of antiquity,” and Lord Byron’s criticism of Elgin.
Professor Anastasakis noted that he is a political scientist dealing with contemporary issues and spoke about the relations between the two countries the UK and Greece and how they view the Parthenon issue from a political perspective. The British perspective on the issue is a legal and political one while from the Greek perspective it is an identity and moral issue, Anastasakis said. He highlighted aspects of the more recent history of the efforts to return the Parthenon Marbles, including politicians in the UK who supported the return but then changed their tune, such as current Prime Minister Boris Johnson who when he was a student in Classical Studies had invited Melina Mercouri to speak at the Oxford Union but now opposes the return.
Professor Sydney Van Nort spoke about the plaster casts of the Parthenon Marbles made in the 1830s that are in the CCNY art collection, noting the much finer sense of the surface detail than the originals in the British Museum now have because of the two cleanings, especially the second one in 1938 that used extremely abrasive techniques. The casts are now on view at the CUNY Graduate Center at 5th Avenue and 34th Street.
Katsos also noted that the return of the Acropolis sculptures is also one of the themes of this year’s Greek Independence Day Parade in New York on Sunday, June 5, on 5th Avenue, which is the largest Hellenic Independence Day parade in the world.
Video of the panel discussion is available on YouTube: