Antiquity / Art / Greece

Returnism: Greek Parthenon Marbles and Banksy Graffiti? (Part 3)

What a curious gathering of passionate art collectors in Britain today. Imagine the dignified antiquity collectors in the same room as those just as passionate to own – graffiti.

For over 200 years, the Brits have remained resolute and determined to own the Greek Parthenon Marbles as acquired by Lord Elgin at all costs. In addition to claims of rightful ownership, they have also claimed to be the best and only protectors of such heritage, yet somehow the British Museum managed to damage the marbles while trying to ‘clean’ the monuments by removing the original painted colors and even the natural color of the marble. And, now, they are confronted with a cultural theft of their own, yet not a piece of a monument of Greek or any other national cultural heritage but … graffiti.

Recently Slave Labor, an illustration done for the Queen’s Diamond’s Jubilee by Banksy an English street artist, was ripped from a wall in Poundland obviously by a thief. (Unless Banksy, himself retrieved it and finally wanted to profit from his (or her) own graffiti street art.) Only this stolen anonymous street art resurfaced for sale, across the Atlantic Ocean, in Florida.

Curiously the people in the community want the art piece back because it is ‘theirs’. A campaign has been launched to halt the sale of the art piece at the auction gallery and they are pursuing all means for its return.

As this art crime drama is unfolding, Prime Minister David Cameron recently indelicately inserted both his feet into his mouth when he declared he didn’t believe in ‘returnism’ for the Koh-i Nor diamond taken by the British during their colonization (occupation) of India and the Parthenon Marbles taken by Lord Elgin, at the time Ambassador of Britain to the Ottoman Empire, during the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Greece.

Are the Brits confused? Or, could it be that Prime Minister Cameron subconsciously did indeed use the right concept for all stolen cultural heritage items – returnism.

By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C.

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5 thoughts on “Returnism: Greek Parthenon Marbles and Banksy Graffiti? (Part 3)

  1. The argument for the restitution of any object belonging to the British Museum is not quite as straight forward as it might seem. We made the point last year that –

    There are several issues in the Elgin Marbles restitution argument (and the restitution of museum objects in general) that might be worth remembering. The first (unless the law has changed) is that the British Museum is unable to dispose, by any means, of an object in its collection.

    That, and national (British and Greek) interests aside, would it actually benefit humanity to return the Elgin Marbles to their place of origin? The Marbles are a good example where it would not, as they would inevitably end up in the Acropolis Museum, not on the Parthenon, where they would be seen by fewer people than at present. Ironically, during the Olympics this year, more people are likely to see the Marbles at the British Museum than they would if they were on display in Athens. It’s also worth asking whether an object would be better conserved and displayed in its new location than its present location – if it isn’t then the case for restitution becomes null and void. More here – http://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/are-the-parthenon-marbles-really-so-special/

    It is quite true that inappropriate cleaning (in the early days of conservation) did cause the discolouration of the Marbles but one might equally argue that if they had not been removed to the British Museum they would no longer be in existence. Ditto the Dunhuang paintings and manuscripts at the BM and BL.

    That’s not to say that some objects should not be returned, and we drew attention (in the same feature) to the Haisla totem pole, or any other object still forming part of a living tradition, that has been taken out of that tradition and out of the context for which it was intended. Banksy’s Slave Labour mural also belonged to a living tradition – that of the Wood Green community in North London where the mural was visible and appreciated by the community there. As far as we know the mural was not stolen as such but removed on the instructions of the owners of the building. There is not much the authorities could do to stop its sale and export but Banksy’s position is that if you take his work out of its context it is no longer his work, it is not a Banksy.

    More here – http://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/banksys-slave-labour-mural-for-the-hammer-again/

    Can it be argued that there *is* a difference between the removal/restitution of the Elgin Marbles and Banksy’s Slave Labour mural? One such difference is that the Marbles can be *freely* seen at the British Museum (there is no admission charge to the Museum and no charge to see the marbles) whereas Banksy’s mural is now probably in a private collection and accessible only to a chosen few (where once it was on public display).

    Excellent website by the way, and one which we look forward to following.

  2. Dear The Heritage Trust
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.
    I appreciate your insights and views.

    We should be thankful for these opportunities to discuss the value of cultural heritage and art to human kind. For it reveals a part of human nature that I describe as an ‘obsession to posses art’. We simply cannot live without art.

    I do believe the sculptures of the Acropolis should be returned because it is the right thing to do. I also believe that in exchange for doing the right thing – source countries could do more to create international exchanges of never before seen artifacts outside of their country.

    I would expect that we could collaborate on a grander scale to share, educate, appreciate and protect cultural heritage. It always starts with a thoughtful conversation.

    Thank you.
    Keri

  3. I agree that every case of removed antiquity is different and unique.

    I feel that I need to reply to some of “The Heritage Trust” arguments and express my humble opinion.

    1. The term “Elgin Marbles” has been replaced by the term “Parthenon Marbles” since the early 80s. Even in the British Museum’s statements. The fact that the British Prime Minister refers to them in 2013 as “Elgin Marbles” shows the lack of education in the matter (especially for people that can make a difference).

    2. The Parthenon Marbles are not “objects”. We are not talking about a piece of Jewellery or a piece of pottery discovered by accident. Everybody understands that we are talking about 50% of the surviving decorative elements of a unique monument, methodically removed over a period of years. Structural elements of the Temple were destroyed to accommodate this. The process was not overseen by qualified archaeologists but by an artist with the help of ship carpenters. Setting aside the arguments, intentions and motives of Lorg Elgin this act SHOULD NEVER TAKE PLACE 200 years ago and would NEVER be allowed in our days.

    3. The Parthenon Marbles will one day return to Greece. They will return to Athens. They can’t be restored on their original place (you see Elgin’s carpenters used saws to cut the 30-40cm of the metopes’ face out of the structural elements of the temple) but they will be positioned next to the other half of the remaining collection at the top level of the new Acropolis Museum. On the Parthenon Gallery, a hall of the same size as the Parthenon, of the same orientation and surrounded by glass to let the same light that the Parthenon Marbles haven’t been subjected for over 200 years. There is only ONE Museum in the world where you can have this experience. Provide the option to anyone in the world as to where they would like to travel and admire the Parthenon Marbles and I’m sure they will choose Athens.

    4. The argument as to where the Parthenon Marbles will attract more visitors is irrelevant. 5.000.000 visitors have been in the new Acropolis Museum since 2009. And if we need to use numbers we should try to establish how many generations of Greeks over the last 200 years missed out on the opportunity to admire the creations of their ancestors. Do you think that this injustice should continue for more generations?

    Thank you for your time and for the opportunity for this discussion.

  4. “I would expect that we could collaborate on a grander scale to share, educate, appreciate and protect cultural heritage. It always starts with a thoughtful conversation.”

    Indeed, please feel free to reblog any of our features that might interest you (please see our guidelines on reblogging here – http://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/reblogging/ ).

    Dear Mr Tritaris

    Thank you for your comments (as well as the link to the University of Sydney’s International Colloquy, “Parthenon An Icon of Global Citizenship” which we have read with interest.

    If we may make one or two points however: Firstly, the fact remains that objects in the British Museum cannot be repatriated to their country of origin, or indeed disposed of in anyway, without a change in English law. This is to ensure that objects in the Museum are not ‘sold off’ or in some other way disposed of and are kept safe for the global community. The term ‘object’ by the way is not in anyway intended to be derogatory but is a term currently used for *any* object held at the British Museum and includes such things as paintings and sculpture. Please see the British Museum link here – http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/w/what_are_the_elgin_marbles.aspx

    The controversy over repatriation will no doubt continue but it is our firmly held belief that, for the foreseeable future at least, they should remain at the British Museum where they can be seen by more people, from more countries, than if they were in Athens. We might add however that for the sake of balance we featured on our pages last year the moving video by Ares Kalogeropoulos entitled I AM GREEK AND I WANT TO GO HOME. The video is here – http://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/the-parthenon-reliefs-a-case-for-their-repatriation/ We are also quite happy to publish any comments you might like to make on that feature on any other feature on the issue.

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