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Is Greece Losing Its Elgin Marbles?

Publication Date: 
August 21, 2009
Foreign Policy
Susan Emerling

Professor John Merryman's 1985 analysis on repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, ancient sculptures removed from the Parthenon, was cited in Foreign Policy magazine in the context of a reignited debate over whether the artifacts should be returned to Greece or stay where they are housed now--the British Museum. Susan Emerling reports:

The culture war between antiquities-importing countries and those whose soils harbor archaeological treasures has flared up again. This time, the battle isn't over recently looted artifacts returned by a chastened American museum to their country of origin. Instead, it is over the June opening of Athens' New Acropolis Museum (NAM), which, in addition to housing an eye-boggling cache of art and artifacts found on the Acropolis, was built with the wishful premise of someday housing what the British refer to as the "Elgin Marbles." These are the late fifth-century sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th-century by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, and acquired by the British Museum in 1816.

Although there are certainly entrenched political and legal obstacles to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece -- chief among them, the British Museum's claim of rightful ownership -- the elegant, state-of-the-art concrete and glass-walled NAM, designed by Swiss-born New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi has put to bed long-standing concerns over Greece's ability to safeguard and exhibit the stones, should they ever return to its shores. Despite its persistent refusal to consider the restitution, even the British Museum seems to have tacitly acknowledged the suitability of the NAM by offering the marginally sincere three-month loan of the marbles in exchange for a renunciation of Greece's ownership claims. (The Greeks ridiculed and rejected the offer.) But amid all this posturing, does the construction of the NAM signal the beginning of a shift in the repatriation debate, which might affect museums around the world that are caught in similar conflicts over contested objects? Although not all archaeological source countries have the resources to build such an unimpeachable museum, the issue of restitution for works of art might increasingly be decided less on whether these source countries can legally reclaim their own antiquities -- but whether, ethically, they should.


All of this talk raises the hackles of a long list of prominent museum directors, historians, and legal scholars. John Henry Merryman, a professor emeritus of Stanford Law School and the grandfather of cultural property law in the United States, in 1985 published what is accepted by many as a definitive analysis of the issues involved in a hypothetical restitution case of the Elgin Marbles, arguing that the Greeks would have no legal, moral, or ethical case for the return of the marbles. The arrival of the NAM, in Merryman's view, does nothing to change this. He reasons that because the marbles could never be restored to their original setting on the Parthenon, there is no value in moving them from one museum to another, particularly because they are easily accessible, well cared for, and on display free of charge at the British Museum.