The Elgin Marbles: Imperial Artefact19 minute read

Culture is a concept that is difficult to define due to its abstract nature, despite its significance in our everyday lives. Inglis (1993) identifies culture as contested values, and Mitchell furthers this through discussion about culture wars, whereby there is a “struggle between acceptable cultural expression” (2000, 71). This struggle is underpinned through power relations (Olwig, 1996) whereby power, accessed by some, is able to impose a vision upon space (Zukin, 1991). Culture should not be thought of as apolitical, but rather rooted in multiple spheres; both the private and public sphere, which includes political practices. Cultural implications can therefore be thought of as ways in which this struggle translates into these spheres, through the ways culture is produced, reproduced and consumed by active agents (Mitchell, 2000). We can identify these cultural implications through following the history of struggle surrounding imperial artefacts.

The Elgin Marbles are a highly contested collection of sculptures that once formed half of the frieze of the Parthenon temple in Athens in Ancient Greek times. Thought to have been constructed around 447-432 BC (Verlaan, 2012), these marbles have been the source of much cultural and political debate over the past three centuries. Practicing British imperial attitudes, in the time of the British Empire, the statues were taken by Lord Elgin in 1801 from their site of origin, the legality of which will later be discussed. These marbles were then transported to England and eventually sold to the British Museum where they still remain on display today. Institutions are relevant in how they operate between the public and private spheres (Whitelegg, 2002), and in doing so, mitigate the cultural implications induced by imperial artefacts. The British Museum is a supposed public institution which institutionalises the artefacts through their display and celebration, in which cultural consumption and production is encouraged. The cultural implications surrounding the Elgin Marbles will be discussed in three sections. Firstly, the implications surrounding the British claim to the artefact; imperial attitudes, self-licensing and a right to ownership. Secondly, the Greek claim to the artefact; including resistance, repatriation and cultural nationalism. Finally, the role of institutions in the celebration of empire will be discussed, with the British Museum examined as a site of continuation of the British Empire, and a way of controlling cultural consumption of a supposedly public good. Culture, identified as struggle, has implications specific to a space and the institutions that bound it. Yet, the implications are not limited by these boundaries and transcend the nation to operate on an international scale in an increasingly globalised world.

Perhaps the most important series of cultural implications surrounding the Elgin Marbles relate to the British claim to the sculptures. In the act of taking the Elgin Marbles, Lord Elgin was practicing the British imperial attitudes of ‘the enlightened explorer’ (Owen, 2006). Additionally, Britain continues to legitimise its actions, despite debate about their legality, demonstrating the power relations underpinning cultural struggle. Moreover, the right to ownership and care of the marbles is contested through ideas of culture as a public, global good. The British Empire was constructed through the belief in British superiority over other nations and cultures; a form of cultural governance (Fincham, 2013) through the imposition of British cultural attitudes across the globe. The ‘discovery’ and subsequent removal of the Elgin Marbles from Athens was a reproduction of this imperial performance (Duthie, 2011). The act of an ‘enlightened’ individual seeking to collect artefacts for his personal collection reduces culture to a commodity that can be taken from its source and retain its original value. This appropriation of Ancient Greek culture has been explained as a desire to recreate the mighty powers of this ancient world by the British (Fehlmann, 2007) who feel as though they are the worthiest of this right, reinforcing the cultural imperialist attitudes. As a simulacrum of Ancient Greece (Baudrillard, 1994) and a “political symbol of British imperial rapacity” (Wood, 1998, 171), the sculptures thus support a cult of whiteness (St Clair, 2004) and xenophobia towards modern Greeks. Deemed as an inferior race and unrelated to the Ancient Greeks who once occupied the land, they are therefore seen as unworthy of the marbles, allowing Britain to justify its cultural theft. In fact, conscious of the surrounding controversy, Britain and the British Museum continue to justify their actions through literature distributed in the Parthenon gallery in the British Museum that houses the marbles and online. On pamphlets in the gallery, the museum proclaims “acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities […] [Parliament] approved the legality […] for the good of all people […]. The arrival of the sculptures in London had a profound effect on the European public, regenerating interest in Ancient Greek culture and influencing contemporary artistic trends” (British Museum, 2016). This suggests an attempt to influence how people choose to consume the appropriated culture right in front of them, as we are not simply passive cultural consumers but free to interpret cultural artefacts based on our own epistemologies (Moore, 2007). In presenting this information as fact, the British Museum attempts to exploit this action.

Despite this, the legitimate authority claimed is highly contested, with the legality of Elgin’s actions undermined. At the time the marbles were taken, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, and therefore had no authority or control over its artefacts. Permission to remove the marbles was therefore based on empires supporting each others problematic actions, demonstrating once again how power permeates through cultural control, and the desires of those without power are pushed to the periphery or ignored (Rudestine, 2016). The permission itself lacks legality due to improper legal documents from the Ottoman authorities (Mottas, 2009). These issues were even recognised within the British government, with 30 MPs voting that the marbles were obtained illegally in 1816 (Greenfield, 1996). Overall, politics has been shown to have a great influence in controlling culture and how we are able to engage with artefacts by politicising them. The power wielded throughout is involuted as culture and knowledge create power (Foucault, 1984) but as Massey (1994, 150) argues, “control of some groups can actively weaken other people” meaning that British exercise of power means resultant Greek cultural oppression. The British right to ownership of the sculptures, as well as care of them, is tied into ideas of accessibility of culture by all. Described by The Guardian as a “heritage of humanity”, it is implied that cultural artefacts are a public good and their implications stretch beyond their nation of origin. Therefore, the ways in which the marbles produce and permit consumption of culture cannot be thought of as tied down to national boundaries as their implications are international.

Highlighting the transnational nature of cultural implications, the Greek claim to the Elgin Marbles must also be discussed as the second set of implications. Here, the implications can be summarised as resistance, repatriation and cultural nationalism. Simply by contesting the British claim to the artefact, the Greeks are performing cultural resistance, demonstrating how culture is not simply passively consumed, and that it is founded upon struggle. Since 1832, when Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, there has been active challenge of the culture imposed upon, and denied from, the nation through imperialism. In 1982 when Greece first formally disputed the British ownership of the sculptures, they exercised agency in an aim to control their cultural identity, symbolising the interactions incited by the marbles. Repatriation is the act of regaining stolen or looted goods (Fletcher, 2015), and the aim of the Greek cultural resistance was to restitutionalise the marbles, and this act itself is a cultural implication. The question of who has the authority to ultimately decide where the marbles belong underlines power relations in culture yet again, and it becomes clear that culture can never be independent of power and politics. Even at a smaller scale than the nation, this power dynamic is also prevalent with, despite 69% of Britons voting to return the marbles (Independent, 2016), their voice remaining unheard, showing how a democratic majority is not enough to counter the domineering voice of a select few. According to Verlaan (2012), there are four main arguments that should be evaluated when considering repatriation: legality, nationalism, conservation and ethics. The role of the law in reclaiming culture highlights the relationship between culture and institutions, both judicial and political, and as has been previously discussed, Lord Elgin’s actions were indeed decisively illegal. Cultural nationalism claims that artefacts are tied to specific places. Indeed, it is argued by some that these artefacts have their greatest cultural implications when considered in their heritage context (De Quincey, 1853), because of the unique perspective this provides. When calling for repatriation of the sculptures, Greek Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri said in 1982 “This is our history, this is our soul” demonstrating the huge emotional national investment in a physical object, evidencing their cultural significance and the entrenched social values (Frank, 1998). To the Greeks, the fight to repatriate these marbles goes beyond contesting their removal by the British, and is in fact a deeper struggle for respect and autonomy. A symbol of independence and the rejection of empire, this cultural property has been politically manipulated through contestation over power (Verlaan, 2012).

Interestingly, their long exile to Britain means that the marbles are also now a part of British culture (Merryman, 1985). In this way, the effect in the public sphere through morale and sense of heritage is dependent on what is permitted to exist by higher powers; power mitigates culture. Regarding conservation and ethics, one of the main reasons supplied by Lord Elgin in his request to purchase the marbles was that he did not believe they were not being protected in the way they deserved (Boardman, 2000). Through universal human ethical interest, Verlaan argues that cultural property should be kept where it can be best preserved for all; a utilitarian versus private view. Despite this, the damage undergone by the sculptures through cleaning under British care has been recognised as irreparable (British Museum, 2001), exhibiting the complexity of this argument. Though it is true that the Greeks had no equivalent institution to the British Museum, to house the sculptures at the time, their persisting presence in the British Museum is no longer justified since the construction of the Museum of Athens (Kersel, 2004), which would display them in the correct cultural context. On the other hand, some arguments have been made to counter the righteousness of the Greek claim. Perhaps the most notable is by Merryman (1985) who has concluded that due to the time passed between Greek independence and the first repatriation call, Greece has lost the legal right to reclaim the artefacts, though the fact that this is based upon British law reinstates the significance of power and decisionmakers (Kersel, 2004) in controlling culture and permitting the diffusion of its implications.

The role of institutions in mitigating cultural implications has been discussed throughout, but will now be further analysed as the third and final collection of cultural implications. In their unique position blurring the boundary of the public and private spheres (Whitelegg, 2002), institutions have the ability to shape the way we access culture through the celebration of artefacts, and in mitigating access and ownership through controlling cultural property. Political and judicial institutions have been instrumental in defining both the British and Greek claim to the Elgin Marbles, but we must consider further examples of institutionalisation of culture; primarily the site in which the marbles are held: the British Museum. In addition, international institutions have played a role in the mediation between Britain and Greece in their struggle to regain ownership of the marbles. Founded in 1753, the British Museum celebrates imperial artefacts through their exhibition as “an imperial archive” (Barringer and Flynn, 1998, 27), embedding artefacts within their imperial context at the heart of the British Empire (Gilbert and Driver, 2000). The acquisition of said artefacts, regardless of whether they were taken from within the British Empire, was imperial in nature, as we have seen in the case of the Elgin Marbles, through the projection of a supercilious mindset. In this way, museums can be seen as a way of continuing the empire in everything but name (Duthie, 2011). “Colonial achievements” (Simpson, 1996, 228) are displayed in a way that supports the imperial philosophy of the museum, which is to control culture through the imposition of Anglo-European values. The museum itself even reproduces these values through enhancing British cultural identity across the globe (MacKenzie, 2010). Through the display and celebration of artefacts, the museum is a source of cultural production in how they are exhibited for people to interpret, including beyond the walls of the institution. It is also a source of cultural consumption through the national and transnational implications, unique to the nature of the imperial artefacts housed. Due to agency in cultural consumption, there is a resultant struggle over contesting interpretations. In the British Museum, repatriation requests are a method of contestation, with 27 repatriation requests made between 1970 and 1990 (Duthie, 2011), including from Greece regarding the Elgin Marbles. However, protest is restricted by this institution through barriers put in place to avoid public demonstrations. Bag checking and the presence of security guards in the exhibitions both limit access and affect the way an individual can interact with an artefact due to the inflicted spatial controls (Massey, 1994). This control seeks to privatise a seemingly public space. Unlike more open sites of imperialism such as Trafalgar Square, open protest is thus prohibited (Cherry, 2006) and instead carried out through institutionalised power and politics, further limiting common public access to cultural struggle.

The British Museum is a self proclaimed ‘universal museum’ (Knox, 2006) as London is a global heartland (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). It is claimed to transcend nationalist arguments as it houses artefacts deemed as human heritage, rather than specific to sites. However, in doing so, the museum is oppressing the nations from which the artefacts originated as in many cases, they are housed there against their will. Britain should not have the ultimate power to decide what can be considered a global good because this is based on British values and despite arguments to the contrary, is primarily in the British interest. Other ‘universal museums’ include the Louvre in Paris. Likewise, the Louvre has been subject similar criticisms regarding Egyptian antiquities, leading to public condemnation from Egypt (Knox, 2006). Beyond museums, other institutions have a role in creating and moderating cultural implications. In the struggle for repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, UNESCO has stepped in on multiple occasions to mediate the discussions between Greece and the UK. However, even as an international justice system, the British failure to cooperate has undermined the greater power, highlighting the complexity of power struggles (The Guardian, 2016).

To conclude, culture is imbued with struggle, and therefore cultural implications are the ways in which this struggle has been performed over time is a palimpsestic construction (Derrida, 2006). The case of the Elgin Marbles embodies this struggle between parties at different scales; from international, national, to subnational disputes. At an international level, Britain and Greece fight for the right to ownership of these sculptures. Despite this, nationally, there is heterogeneity in epistemology and the role of subnational, specific institutions, such as UNESCO, in exacerbating this contestation is notable. As struggle is won through power, it can be said that power mitigates culture. By viewing this power struggle through a historical lens, we can understand the resultant cultural implications. These implications can be summarised as the British prerogative, the subsequent Greek resistance, and the impact of institutions in defining interactions. The British claim to the Elgin Marbles is founded with imperialist values resulting in illegal larceny and erasure of ‘other’ nonconforming cultural identities. Cultural struggle and imposition is imbued with power. Indeed, even the renaming of the marbles to “The Elgin Marbles” erases their cultural heritage. The Greek claim is based on resistance to imposed cultures through repatriation, via nationalist and ownership arguments. Here, artefacts embody cultural identity and incite active struggle to reclaim this. Art and culture are inexplicably intertwined with institution, and the British Museum is no exception in its role in defining cultural consumption and production within a miniature simulacrum of empire. The controversial nature of this struggle can actually be argued to be instrumental in cultural production because of increased cultural consumption by a range of people. In inciting an emotive argument, individuals are encouraged to be increasingly active in interpreting and resisting what is presented to them, through platforms such as petitions. Culture is politicised through the way it inspires this debate. Ultimately, The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. Arguments that suggested that they were under better care in the British Museum are now invalid due to the new Museum of Athens built specifically to conserve them. However, in the historical fight for repatriation, institutions with vested interest such as UNESCO should not act as mediators because their biased nature encourages British noncompliance. Importantly, it remains true that these marbles will always be a heritage of humanity, but this does not mean that they are not subject to nationalist ownership. Nevertheless, other artefacts of human heritage are freely given up by their nations in order to present them on a more global platform. In these cases, universal museums may come into play, but more needs to be done to ensure that universal museums do not celebrate looted goods as in their current state they reinforce an imperial legacy. Only if utilised correctly and ethically, the location of these museums in global cities such as London, Paris and New York has the potential to allow greater public access and therefore increased diffusion of transnational cultural implications in an increasingly globalised world.


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