LONDON – It was gridlock in the British Museum the other morning as South African teenagers, Japanese businessmen toting Harrods bags, and a busload of German tourists — the usual crane-necked, camera-flashing babel of visitors — formed scrums before the Rosetta Stone, which Egyptian authorities just lately have again demanded that Britain return to Egypt. From the Egyptian rooms the crowds shuffled past the Assyrian gates from Balawat (Iraq is another country pleading for lost antiquities) and past the Roman statue of the crouching Aphrodite (ditto Italy), then headed toward the galleries containing what are known in Britain as the Elgin marbles (but in Greece as the Parthenon marbles, or simply booty), where passers-by plucked pamphlets from a rack.
The British Museum is Europe’s Western front in the global war over cultural patrimony, on account of the marbles. The pamphlets give the museum’s version for why they should stay in Britain, as they have for two centuries — ever since Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte at Constantinople, and with the consent of the ruling Ottomans (not to mention a blithe disregard for whatever may have been the wishes of the Greek populace), spirited them from the Acropolis in Athens. The pamphlet stresses that the British Museum is free and attracts millions of visitors every year from around the world, making the sculptures available to, and putting them in the context of, a wide swath of human civilization.
For their part the Greeks, before their economy collapsed, finally opened the long-delayed New Acropolis Museum last year to much fanfare: it’s an up-to-date facility, forbidding and frankly ugly outside, but airy and light-filled inside, a home-in-waiting for the marbles, whose absence is clearly advertised by bone-white plaster casts of what Elgin took, alongside yellowed originals that he left behind. The view through a broad picture window, eloquent but baleful under the circumstances, looks onto the ruined Parthenon, playing on visitors’ heartstrings. Greeks deem the museum a slam-dunk argument for the marbles’ return.
It’s definitely compelling.
But the British still make the better case.
Siding with the imperialists drives good people bonkers, I know. It’s akin to Yankees worship, with the Greeks playing the underdog role of the old Red Sox. That said, patrimony claims too often serve merely nationalist ends these days, no less often than they do decent ones, never mind that the archaeological and legal arguments by the Greeks, while elaborately reasoned and passionately felt, don’t finally trump the British ones.
Mostly, though, the issue comes down to the fact that culture, while it can have deeply rooted, special meanings to specific people, doesn’t belong to anyone in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t stand still. When Walter Benjamin wrote in the last century about the original or authentic work of art losing its aura, he was in part suggesting that the past is not something we can just return to whenever we like — it’s not something fixed and always available. It’s something forever beyond our grasp, which we must reinvent to make present.
Today’s Acropolis is itself a kind of fiction. Over the centuries and through succeeding empires and regimes, it became Christian and Turkish, and briefly Venetian, after it had been Roman. The Parthenon was a pagan temple, a church, a mosque, an arms depot (disastrously, under the Turks) and even a place from which the Nazis hung a big swastika flag whose removal by Greek patriots helped spur a resistance movement. Modernity has mostly stripped the site of all those layers of history to recover a Periclean-era past that represents, because it has come to mean the most to us, its supposed true self — a process of archeological excavation, based on another modern kind of fiction about historical and scientific objectivity that inevitably adds its own layer of history.
One of the paradoxes of the marbles debate is that it was precisely their removal to London, and all the anguish and furor and archaeological interest and study this provoked, starting with Hellenophiles like Lord Byron heaping scorn on Elgin and fellow Britons, that helped galvanize the Greeks’ own sense of national identity and their pride in the Parthenon sculptures. Now the Greek government has even chosen to name its consolidation plan to combat the economic collapse after an architect of the Parthenon, Kallikrates.
But the general question, looting and tourist dollars aside, is why should any objects necessarily reside in the modern nation-state controlling the plot of land where, at one time, perhaps thousands of years earlier, they came from? The question goes to the heart of how culture operates in a global age.
The Greek proposal that Britain fork over Elgin’s treasures has never involved actually putting the sculptures back onto the Parthenon, which started crumbling long before he showed up. The marbles would go from one museum into another, albeit one much closer. The Greeks argue for proximity, not authenticity. Their case has always been more abstract, not strictly about restoration but about historical reparations, pride and justice. It is more nationalistic and symbolic.
Over the centuries, meanwhile, bits and pieces of the Parthenon have ended up in six different countries, in the way that countless altars and other works of art have been split up and dispersed among private collectors and museums here and there. To the Greeks the Parthenon marbles may be a singular cause, but they’re like plenty of other works that have been broken up and disseminated. The effect of this vandalism on the education and enlightenment of people in all the various places where the dismembered works have landed has been in many ways democratizing.
That’s not an excuse for looting. It’s simply to recognize that art, differently presented, abridged, whatever, can speak in myriad contexts. It’s resilient and spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders. Ripped from its origins, it loses one set of meanings, to gain others.
Laws today fortunately prevent pillaging sites like the Acropolis. But they stop short of demanding that every chopped-up altar by Rubens, Fra Angelico or whomever now be pieced together and returned to the churches and families and institutions for which they were first intended. For better and worse, history moves on.
The Elgin marbles, from the cultural crossroads of imperial London, reshaped cultural history over the course of the last 200 years by giving rise to neo-Classicism around the globe. Or perhaps it is more precise to say that the Parthenon marbles, by virtue of their presence both in Athens and London, helped spread that movement along with sympathy for the Greeks’ cause.
Americans, excepting Indians, may find this whole issue hard to grasp. We don’t tend to think in terms of American cultural patrimony, save perhaps for the Liberty Bell or the Brooklyn Bridge, because we’re an immigrant nation worshipful of the free market. Demanding the return of American art and artifacts to America sounds, well, un-American, not to mention bad for the bottom line. We are too diverse in our roots, too focused on the present, too historically amnesiac and individualistic (not to mention rich) to worry overly about a collective culture or who might own it.
And in the end patrimony is about ownership, often of objects that as in the marbles’ case, come from bygone civilizations. What, in this context, does it really mean to own culture?
Italy recently celebrated the return of a national treasure after the Metropolitan Museum gave back a sixth-century B.C. Greek krater by the painter Euphronius that tomb robbers dug up outside Rome during the 1970s. Stolen property is stolen property. But how curious that an ancient Greek vase, which centuries after it was made came into the possession of an Etruscan collector (a kind of ancient Elgin) living on what is now the outskirts of Rome, and then ended up buried for thousands of years below what became modern Italy, is today Italian cultural patrimony. By that definition, Elgin’s loot is arguably British patrimony.
It’s not coincidental that conflicts over patrimony have accelerated in recent decades thanks to globalizing trends: the increasing circulation of information along with objects and money — consequences of the Web, jet travel and mass tourism — and the evolution of institutions like the British Museum from sleepy, scholarly repositories of artifacts into entertainment palaces and virtual town squares. Authorities in countries like Greece, having seen the escalating economic and symbolic value of works like the marbles, have naturally sought to take advantage.
It isn’t to belittle a deep-seated connection to such works to point out that claimants to far-flung patrimony may have various motives. When Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, who made the recent fuss about the Rosetta Stone, also demanded that Germany hand over Nerfertiti, the 3,500-year-old bust of Akhenaten’s wife, he chose the moment when the Neues Museum in Berlin opened with the bust as its main attraction.
This was just after Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s candidate to run Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, was defeated in a vote that Egyptian leaders considered a diplomatic slap. Mr. Hawass used Egypt’s only real weapon on the international stage, its cultural patrimony, to lash out by proxy at the perceived enemies of Mr. Hosny’s candidacy and pander to the wounded egos of Egypt’s ruling elite.
It was a public relations gambit. Practically speaking, Egypt had to know there was no immediate shot at getting Nerfertiti back. The sculpture served in a passing form of political theater common these days, with Egypt playing plucky David to the West’s Goliath.
Patrimony debates often end up in this moral fog of shifting geopolitics. The world was outraged when the National Museum in Iraq was looted after the war there started. But almost nobody (outside Germany, anyway) cares today whether Russia returns storerooms of treasures it stole at the end of World War II. Nigeria holds the moral high ground in demanding the return of sculptures burgled from that country’s beleaguered museums, even though insiders were often complicit in the crimes.
And after the Taliban destroyed a Buddhist temple and burned centuries-old illuminated manuscripts, hardly anybody outside the country blinked when Unesco refused to authorize shipments of artifacts from Afghanistan to Switzerland because the move violated international rules against the removal of “national patrimony” — and also because nobody was really paying much attention to that region yet.
Then Taliban inspectors pulverized priceless treasures before the eyes of helpless Afghan curators and blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in obedience to Mullah Omar’s edict against the existence of pre-Islamic art. Only then did people in the West wake up and Unesco reconsider its position. Too late.
In the Parthenon’s case the Greek actress Melina Mercouri kicked off the modern repatriation push during the 1980s as part of the nationalist program of a Greek leader, Andreas Papandreou, whose slogan was “Greece for the Greeks.” What started in conjunction with a political campaign then evolved into a genuine street movement. Dimitris Pandermalis, the New Acropolis Museum’s director, told me before the museum opened last year that the Elgin marbles’ return “unifies us,” meaning the Greek people, although surveys show that few of them actually bother to visit the Acropolis after grade school, while antique sites rivaling the Parthenon in archaeological significance often go neglected across Greece. As I said, it’s ultimately about nationalism and symbolism.
So be it. That’s why Greek authorities always decline diplomatic solutions like sharing the marbles or asking for their loan. They assume any loan request would legitimize Britain’s ownership. The principle is high minded. What results is, in effect, nothing, which doesn’t diminish the Greeks’ connection with the missing marbles.
But as the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has cautioned about the whole patrimony question: “We should remind ourselves of other connections. One connection — the one neglected in talk of cultural patrimony — is the connection not through identity but despite difference.”
What he means is that people make connections across cultures through objects like the marbles. These objects can become handmaidens for ideologues, instruments for social division and tools of the economy, or cicerones through history and oracles to a more perfect union of nations. Art is something made in a particular place by particular people, and may serve a particular function at one time but obtain different meanings at other times. It summons distinct feelings to those for whom it’s local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.
We’re all custodians of global culture for posterity.
Neither today’s Greeks nor Britons own the Parthenon marbles, really.