The Parthenon Marbles: how museums distort our perception of the past
Joshua Smith explains the complex history behind the Parthenon Marbles and questions what modern museums should be doing to account for their colonial pasts.
Edward Said once wrote, “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic”. Said’s words, in my opinion, are no better illustrated than in the social history of the Parthenon.
The temple has undergone a tumultuous and multi-faced journey, from late antiquity to the present day. In the 5th century AD, it became an orthodox church, at which time many of the sculptures were defaced and placed beside Christian iconography. The next century saw the Parthenon turn into a Catholic church as the Cathedral of Athens. Come the fifteenth century, and following the Ottoman occupation of Athens, it had become a mosque, with the Erechtheion, noted as the temple with the caryatids, transforming into a harem.
The role of museums in the modern world is to celebrate our extraordinarily differentiated cultures and this begins by acknowledging the pathways cultures have taken to reach the modern day. Many of these are even more meandering than the Parthenon and ensuring that these cultures are accessible to all, helps create a borderless pluralism of discovery and preservation.
Many of the world’s great museums remain passive and fail to acknowledge the harmful legacy of colonialism
Yet, many of the world’s great museums remain passive and fail to acknowledge the harmful legacy of colonialism which has left many of the world’s nations without a tangible past.
The social life of the Acropolis was majorly interrupted once more in 1801-1802 by the violent removal of a large number of sculptures by Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin. Elgin used his position of power as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the favourable climate of the Franco-Turkish war, in which Britain was allied with the Ottomans, to ‘excavate’ the sculptures which now popularly bear his name and ship them back to Britain to sell to the British Museum. In practice, this ‘excavation’ included sawing in half a 2200-year-old artefact.
Modern Greek folktales recount imaginings of the sculptures ‘crying out’ for Elgin to stop, while Lord Byron, who fought in the Greek War of Independence, likened Elgin’s acts to vandalism and lamented in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ thy walls defac’d, they mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands”.
I can sense echoes in this lament of when Ovonramwen, the Oba of Benin, reportedly said of his obligations to the Royal Niger Company, “while the Great White Queen was ruler of the seas, he was the ruler of the land”. A short time later, the British led an expedition of 1400 heavily armed soldiers to exile the Oba and ransack the city of Benin, returning with more than four-thousand pieces of sculpture which are now known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’ and of which many are scattered across the Western World’s museums.
Both countries still bear the burden of barbaric looting and a legacy of colonial archaeology
Oba Ovonramwen’s grandson, Akenzua II, first placed a formal request for the return of two Bronze chairs to the BM in 1936. The Greek Government’s first request for the return of the Elgin Marbles was in 1983; both were refused, both are still unreturned, and both countries still bear the burden of barbaric looting and a legacy of colonial archaeology.
Black Lives Matter has given huge impetus to the repatriation of African artefacts, with some nations recently acknowledging their colonial pasts and making reparations for their past wrongdoings. Germany recently paid Namibia $1.3 billion in reparations for the 1904-08 Herero-Nama genocide, whilst a 2017 report commissioned by the French government stated that France should return all ‘objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions’. Both are significant steps towards justice, as are the countless museums organising the of return some, or all, of their collections of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
The progress is paradoxical, with the British Museum hiding behind a 1963 act that forbids them from ‘disposing of or de-accessioning’ any part of their collection, whilst orders, such as the 2009 Holocaust Act, give the power to return items looted by the Nazis to their owners. Interestingly, Houssa soldiers who fought in the bush during the looting of the Benin artefacts reported seeing ‘hundreds of dead bodies, some of which were simply cut in two by maxim fire’. Surely such accounts of the barbarity of our colonial past should provoke their own ‘Holocaust Act’, yet the British Museum remains in passivity as other governments and museums are arranging new ways to imagine museum culture in the modern world.
The return by Western museums of stolen artefacts is a matter of morality. The resolution, in my opinion, must not focus itself on whether these artefacts should be in museums or not, but focus on who has the right to make this decision in the first place.
In the case of the Elgin marbles, it is Greece, regarding the Benin Bronzes, it is Nigeria. The future of museum culture, and what will mark it as truly ‘universal’, as the BM, The Louvre, and The MET claim to be, is when all nations can be on level-pegging when it comes to the international collaboration of touring artefacts. This way, countries can feel that it is their culture on show, and not a stolen, looted, or corrupted version of it.