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Culture

The Symposium on the Parthenon Marbles Case and the Universal Museum Myth

NEW YORK – The Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, the FAME Center and the Benjamin B. Ferencz Human Rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic presented The Parthenon Marbles Case and the Universal Museum Myth: Policies and Politics on April 28.

The symposium brought together leading scholars and advocates to discuss the history of cultural property, their rightful owners and whether the property should be returned to the original creating country. Professor David Rudenstine, the Sheldon H. Solow Professor of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, presented his decades-long historical research challenging the British Museum’s claim in the cultural property dispute between Greece and Great Britain over the Parthenon Sculptures taken to London in the early 1800s by the British ambassador, Lord Elgin.

Elena Korka, Honorary Director General, Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, compared the pieces of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens with those in the British Museum. Photo: TNH Staff

Dean of the Cardozo School of Law Melanie Leslie gave the opening remarks, noting that one good thing that has emerged from the pandemic is the hybrid type of event which can reach even more people than an in-person only conference. She pointed out the great interest in the Symposium and that over 500 people registered for the event.

The Symposium program began with the first panel, titled History Surrounding the Removal of the Sculptures and the UK Purchase of Elgin’s Collection. Prof. Rudenstine highlighted that the Parthenon Sculptures were stolen and there is no proof that Elgin ever had any permission to remove them from the monument. He also noted that the British Museum was invited to participate in the discussion but declined.

Professor Patty Gerstenblith spoke about The Myth of the Universal Museum during the Parthenon Marbles Case Symposium on April 28. Photo: TNH Staff

Rudenstine pointed out that Elgin’s alleged permission from the Ottoman authorities was “a tale of three documents” – a lost Turkish document, its Italian translation, and the English translation of the Italian that was presented to the UK Parliament. Rudenstine emphasized that the Italian document was likely a draft as there was no indication it was ever signed or had any official stamp. He then introduced panelist Giovanna Bellesia, Department Chair of Italian and German Studies at Smith College, who analyzed the Italian document and its English translation.

The document was presented to the UK Parliament committee that authorized the purchase of the collection as proof that Elgin had “permission” to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon, but Bellesia noted many discrepancies, additions, and questionable choices in the English translation of the Italian document most designed to make it appear more “official” while others were acceptable clarifications of the text. The translation of the Italian word “qualche” which means “a few” was rendered as “any” which Bellesia found “highly debatable.” For example, “should they wish to take away a few pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto,” appears as “when they should wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto,” and later on in the document, “taking away a few pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures” appears as “any pieces of stone.” Bellesia also scoured the archives to find an instance of the word qualche where it could be translated as “any” and discovered only two from the 14th century when the word was still spelled as two separate words qual che and “implied an indefinite quantity, translated with any, but [meaning] one or a few out of many.” By the early 19th century, when the document was translated, qualche meant “a few.”

The Parthenon Marbles Case Symposium on April 28 began with an analysis of the documents. Photo: TNH Staff

Slides highlighted the presentation especially when the English translation was shown with the additions and questionable word choices highlighted in various colors.

Bellesia quoted from Bishop Desmond Tutu who said that “language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” She added that this is also the case for translation.

Rudenstine noted that many were upset by what Elgin had done, but decided to hold the stolen sculptures in trust for Greece until it achieved independence. He said that the Parliament committee wanted it to appear that Elgin was not a looter taking advantage of his position as ambassador, but the British Museum long ago lost its high ground in this case. The Parthenon is the “icon of western civilization,” he pointed out, and “a recognized symbol” worldwide of its values. The sculptures tell a story and are part of a unified effort by the ancient artists and should be reunited, Rudenstine said.

Panelist Elena Korka, Honorary Director General, Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, then gave her presentation titled “The Legality of the Removal of the Parthenon Marbles: Truth or Fiction?” which again highlighted the continuing injustice. Slides showcased the dismemberment of the sculptures with, for example, heads in Athens and torsos in the British Museum. As Korka noted, “a jigsaw puzzle is waiting to be completed while the sculptures remain divided.”

The second panel “Should the British Museum Return the Collection to Athens?” began with a presentation titled “Principles, Not Exceptionalism,” by Colgate University Professor Elizabeth Marlowe who argued that the Parthenon sculptures should not be returned because they are a “unique case,” but based on principles museums should adopt for the return of all items illegally acquired. She pointed out that the British Museum must reevaluate its procedures for the restitution of other stolen artifacts in its collection and mentioned several cases worldwide of important artifacts that were looted from monuments that still stand today, otherwise the return of the Parthenon sculptures will be seen as a gift of a strong power to a weaker one, reinforcing the paternalism of the past and will not help others in their cases for the return of stolen artifacts.

During the panel on Cultural Property & International Human Rights Trends, the case of this ancient Bronze Horse was cited. Photo: TNH Staff

International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures President Kris Tytgat then spoke from Belgium concerning the issue and though she did not agree with all of Prof. Marlowe’s presentation, but did agree with the earlier panel that the sculptures were removed illegally and there is no trace of a permit from the Ottoman government for the removal if it ever existed.

University of Nicosia Professor Irini Stamatoudi, also an attorney-at-law in the Athens Supreme Court, presented the arguments of both sides in the case, Greece and the UK, pointing out that Britain sees the dispute as being between museums while Greece sees it as an intergovernmental dispute. The matter is still on UNESCO’s agenda since 1983 and will remain so until resolved. The argument that the British Museum cannot return items from its collection was refuted by Stamatoudi who gave examples of returned items. She also offered a summary on where we stand today, noting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ meeting with UK PM Boris Johnson, public opinion in the UK in support of the return, and the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to Its Countries of Origin that not only issued a recommendation but a decision to urge the UK “to reconsider its stance and enter into talks with Greece” for the return, acknowledging “the intergovernmental character of the dispute and the fact that the Greek claim is just, fair, and legal.”

Stamatoudi concluded her presentation with a photo of London’s Tower Bridge with half of it missing, to give the British as idea of how Greeks and philhellenes feel about the Parthenon.

In her address via video, Greek Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni also reviewed the history of the case for the return of the sculptures to Athens. She noted that the arguments used by the British Museum are not valid, especially the notion that Greece does not possess appropriate and worthy facilities to receive them, when the new Acropolis Museum was built and designed specifically to showcase the sculptures in their rightful home. The Acropolis Museum “has already celebrated more than 10 years of exceptionally successful operation” and is “ranked among the most important, iconic and visited museums in the world,” Mendoni said.

Professor David Rudenstine. Photo: Courtesy of Cardozo School of Law

The third panel focused on The Universal Museum Myth with Prof. Stamatoudi as moderator. Panelist Patty Gerstenblith, Professor at DePaul College of Law, acknowledged the Lenape, the indigenous people whose land includes Manhattan where the conference took place. Her presentation, titled The Myth of the “Universal” Museum, began with the Enlightenment origins of the idea of an “encyclopedic” museum gathering in items from all over the world, epitomized by the British Museum and made possible through colonialism and imperialism. “Universal” also meant public, and while the British Museum, founded in 1753, claimed to be the first public museum, for its first 40 years anyone wanting to visit had to apply for permission to get in. The Louvre opened in 1793 and fitting the principles of the French Revolution was open to the public for public education. The in-gathering of items from the second half of the 18th century through the 19th century always included the distinction between the current indigenous people and their ancient ancestors who produced the art that in the rescue narrative could only be cared for by western Europeans who appreciated the art and would take care of it.

Gerstenblith noted the Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums of 2002 which was signed by several museums including the British Museum to justify their collections saying that today’s laws and morality cannot be applied to the past, but did not address the ongoing harm to the people whose cultural heritage was stolen. Value is also not added when juxtaposing artifacts from various cultures next to each other since the loss of context leaves only the aesthetic comparison. The opportunity is lost to learn more about the history and culture as well as other aspects of the artifact and its meaning.

The rightful owners should decide how the objects are displayed, Gerstenblith said, and quoted a museum director who said that “we can’t be open to the public and display stolen objects.”

She pointed out that you cannot represent the citizens of the world without their consent.

Elena Korka, Honorary Director General, Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, presented the ancient origins of museums as repositories for rulers to display trophies and spoils of war. She questioned whether the “universal” museum in the 21st century is the best way to view art and noted that the term “ecumenical museum” is missing. Korka highlighted the value of preserving monuments and the contextual significance of objects.

Joe Baker, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Lenape Center, offered insights into the issue, noting that “we need our objects back home,” and a museum should be “of universal value, not a ‘universal’ museum.”

The fourth and final panel on Cultural Property & International Human Rights Trends featured moderator Sandy Cobden, a graduate of Cardozo Law School ’90 and Deputy General Counsel for Pactiv Evergreen Inc. The panelists Lawrence Kaye, Partner at Herrick, Feinstein LLP; Leila Amineddoleh, Founder of Amineddoleh & Associates LLC; and Kristen Carpenter, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado highlighted the many legal cases that are showing the tide has turned for the return of cultural property from museums. Kaye noted the many items in recent years repatriated through the efforts of the New York District Attorney’s office, for example, but added that more international cooperation is needed.

Q&A sessions followed each of the panels, offering the opportunity to attendees to deepen the discussion of the issue.

Prof. Rudenstine gave the concluding remarks, thanking all those who participated, and noting that since Melina Mercouri made her request for the British Museum to return the Parthenon Sculptures in 1984 trends are moving in the right way and the effort is gaining more support around the world as museums are more open to meetings and mediation for the return of cultural property. “We’re going in the right direction and we have the political support behind us,” he said.

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