This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick in September, 2012. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instill in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.
But most the
modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains. (XII)
Cold is the
heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d! (XV)
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Second Canto (1812)
What is happening with the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles and widely lauded as the jewel in the crown of the British Museum?
When the new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens in June 2009, the British Museum faced unprecedented pressure to return the sculptures to Greece. Intellectuals, elected officials, and ordinary citizens weighed in, with public opinion apparently in favour of giving them back. It looked as though Museum officials might finally relent. The issue was back on the public agenda in June 2012, in a repatriation debate between Stephen Fry and MP Tristram Hunt, and again this month in a speech by Henry Porter in which he urged that returning the sculptures would be the right thing to do.
This issue bubbles up every few years. It follows a predictable pattern: an event (speech; historical landmark; new building) triggers renewed cries for repatriation, media outlets swarm around the story, and the British Museum digs in its heels. Why is it that this issue is apparently irresolvable? And how did these sculptured rocks, made by non-British artisans in a non-British place, come to be seen as integral to the British Museum and, implicitly, to Britain generally? This is a problem of nationalism and the politics of culture.
For scholars of nationalism, the case presents a conceptual puzzle. The nationalism literature takes for granted a nation’s desire to present itself as special and elect, relying on homegrown cultural products – from cuisine to folk costumes and artworks – to strengthen its “nationness.” The Parthenon marbles, however, puts a curious kink in this line of thinking. The sculptures were imported to Britain but they have become emblems of British nationhood.
For all citizens, regardless of their scholarly or political bent, the case raises important concerns about cultural heritage and its meaning in global circuits. We hear frequent mention of cultural heritage and its essential role in keeping ethnic groups intact. It is an attractive claim, but how do we assess it? What should we do, moreover, even if we accept the argument? These questions need to be opened up and scrutinized.
My analysis is based primarily on archival data and consulting the minutes of the British Museum Trustees’ meetings from 1753 through 1830 as well as the full record of the Select Committee on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles (March 25, 1816). Then there are the newspapers. With the help of two digital search engines, I have located more than 1,000 articles from early nineteenth century UK newspapers and magazines that mention the sculptures or Lord Elgin. These proved to be rich repositories of information about how people outside of London and its elite art circles made sense of the sculptures and gradually accepted them as emblems of Britishness.
Moving the immoveable from the Athenian Acropolis to Elgin’s London shed
The Parthenon sculptures were made in the third quarter of the 5th century BC for the Temple to Athena Parthenos (“virgin”) on the Athenian acropolis. Ancient writers praised them for their beauty and perfect imitation of nature. After the decline of Athens and the displacement of its polytheistic religion, the temple and its sculptures were damaged by natural and man-made events. But we are told by travellers’ reports that in spite of their decrepitude, the temple and its statues were respected and even revered by local residents.
Lord Elgin saw things differently. As ambassador to the Ottoman court, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, visited Athens, then under Ottoman rule. Elgin decided that the sculptures would be removed from the Parthenon and shipped back to the United Kingdom. In spite of his later claim that he acted in order to bring ancient Greek art to the British public and protect the sculptures from further damage, it is clear from Elgin’s private letters that he intended to send them to his home in Scotland. Beginning in the summer of 1801, Elgin's workmen pried or chiselled away a large number of marble figures. Some were heavily damaged or irreparably shattered. The work was finished the following year. It was not until 1804, after one ship carrying several of the sculptures sank and had to be recovered, that the major portion of them arrived in England.
Once in England, the government’s customs officials pronounced the sculptures worthless. Elgin struggled to find friends who were willing to display them in their stately homes. While Elgin was held as a prisoner of war in France (1803 through 1805), the marbles were stored in packed crates and eventually found their way to the Customs House in London.
After Elgin’s return to England in 1806 he tapped a network of well-connected cultural élites. They launched what would be described today as a public-relations campaign. Letters to newspaper editors praised the aesthetic virtues of the sculptures, magazine articles commended Elgin’s efforts to protect the ancient masterpieces, and Parliamentary speeches warned against allowing the sculptures to be lost to foreign collectors. Through polemic and diplomacy, the Museum’s trustees were finally persuaded to make the purchase for the bargain price of £35,000.
How the Parthenon sculptures went from worthless to priceless is a breathtaking transformation in value that needs to be understood in a broader context. As the historian Holger Hoock argues, “[In the early nineteenth century] nations and states collected for national prestige, and to display in their public spaces trophies of war and conquest. Diplomatic battles and international culture wars were fought over antiquities”. The acquisition of big antiquities, the construction of new display spaces for art, and the commissioning of paintings, statuary, and oratorios transformed the state into a classically aggrandized cultural nation.
Greek statues, British bodies
Elgin’s public relations campaign, as I called it earlier, was not limited to sympathetic newspaper editorials or lobbying MPs. In a flash of marketing genius, Elgin (or one of his supporters) thought to link the unloved Parthenon statues to the wildly popular sport of boxing.
Key evidence for this comes from the diary of Joseph Farington. Farington was part of an exclusive circle of London men who appreciated fine art and met regularly to discuss and produce critiques of it. On June 20, 1808, Farington and several friends ate breakfast at the London home of Sir Anthony Carlisle. After breakfast Carlisle led his guests to his front drawing room, “where we found Gregson, the pugilist, stripped naked, to be exhibited to us on account of the fineness of His form” (Farington 1925 : 80). Bob Gregson, the English national champion, was one of the most famous fighters in his day. The approximate modern equivalent would be for houseguests to find a naked David Beckham in the host’s sitting room. Farington and fellow-guests admired ‘the beauty of his proportions from the Knee or rather the waist upwards’ – all 6’2” of him. Carlisle’s guests agreed that Gregson was ‘the finest figure’ they had seen, and took up a collection of coins for Gregson’s efforts (Farington 1925 : 81). But this was merely a teaser. Their appetites whetted, the guests were encouraged to visit Lord Elgin’s shed ten days later in order to compare Gregson’s body with the sculpted Parthenon figures.
The shed was Elgin’s temporary display space for the marbles. Gregson was a powerful draw. In his diary entry for that day, Farington wrote that there was “much company” for this second display of Gregson’s body. For two hours, Gregson was “placed in many attitudes” alongside the sculptures, striking poses similar to those of the Parthenon figures.
The shed was now the talk of the town. Anybody who was anybody in London’s cultural scene wanted to visit. In July 1808 Elgin staged his best show yet. His guests were now treated to the spectacle of three pairs of pugilists sparring among the marbles. These were no ordinary fighters. John Gully was a successful prizefighter and immensely popular figure. He retired from boxing in 1808, amassed a fortune, and became a Member of Parliament by 1832. John Jackson was the prize-fighting champion of Britain and Lord Byron's personal trainer. He was one of a small group of fighters invited to stand as pages at the entrance of Westminster Abbey during the coronation of George IV. Jem Belcher was a bare-knuckle fighter and Champion of All England from 1800 to 1805. In sum, these men were more than celebrity athletes: they were national heroes, lionized as icons. Dutch Sam, nicknamed the Man with the Iron Hand, was especially praised for his body’s symmetry with the ideal Greek physique.
What was going on? It was socially acceptable for élite British men to watch and bet on prizefighting. As historians John Golby and William Purdue point out, “Many supporters of prizefighting argued that it was an intrinsically English activity reflecting the sturdiness, the courage and the manliness of the race. [The sport] evoked an atmosphere redolent of an older, half-imaginary England where sporting squires and sturdy labourers rubbed shoulders in common appreciation of physical prowess”. Pugilism featured an aesthetic that crossed classes in its appeal.
But such matches were typically not held in sculpture galleries, and boxers did not normally pose naked for the spectators. What Elgin was trying to do was persuade his audience of the sculptures’ natural place in Britain and in Britons’ natural configuration in classical art. If the naked celebrities looked just like the mounted Greek warriors in the frieze, then Britons could assure themselves that they were the embodied legacy of ancient Athens.
How did Elgin, the boxers, Farington, and a motley crew of London élites look at the Parthenon figures and see Britons? It may matter that the marbles are now, and were in Elgin’s time, white. They were not always so. In antiquity the sculptures were brightly painted, to ensure that they would be be visible from the ground [see photo]. The original paints eroded through the years, leaving a creamy-pale patina. Early collectors of sculpture noticed paint traces on Greek and Roman statuary, and some of it was recorded in watercolour paintings. But by the nineteenth century, white sculpture was assumed to be more accurate than the colored version.
Without colour it is difficult for all but art history experts to distinguish differences in the sculpted subjects’ clothing, weaponry, and ethnic markers. The absence of colour allows for the blurring, even erasure, of ethnicity, thus making it easier to project multiple selves onto it. Moreover, the “pure imperial white” was contrasted with impure, uncivilized color, as the anthropologist Ann McClintock writes. The ruddy browns and reds that were actually used to depict Greek male skin would have diminished the possibility of nineteenth century white Britons’ teleological engagement with the sculptures. Monochromy also erases time. The antiquity of the sculpture group cannot be denied, but without colour it can be repackaged as timeless: to Elgin’s contemporaries and to us today, lack of colour translates into lack of sartorial specificity, allowing the figures to seem present, relevant, and claimable by us.
Through their physical appearance and concerted insertion into the metropolitan élites’ somatic experience, the marbles were primed for absorption into the British nation. Given the obsolescence of ancient Greece, Britain could both rhetorically assert her right to the mantle of Greek civilization and visually enforce it through a prominent display of the Parthenon sculptures. Disseminated through culture highbrow and low-, the Greek origins of the sculptures were gradually erased. The marbles served as models for the new crown pieces of George III. They appeared in Punch magazine political cartoons, cheap postcards, and drawing books. British men and women unable to travel to London could enjoy plaster casts of the sculptures, which were eventually displayed in museums throughout the country. A new national identity was grafted onto them.
A well-known 19th century painting of an imagined visit to the Parthenon by Pheidias and his friends nicely showing the vivid colours of the sculpture. Wikimedia/Public domain.
Cosmopolitanism, national identity, and impasse
Today, the British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon sculptures are “integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement.” Further, according to the British Museum web site:
The current division of the surviving sculptures between museums in eight countries, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture. This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that gives maximum public benefit for the world at large and affirms the universal nature of the Greek legacy.
Attaching a supra-national narrative to the sculptures counters the argument that they are integral to Greek nationhood. Moreover, the Museum asserts that its service is to “world culture,” reducing Athens’s contribution to “the history of Athens and Greece.”
British élites had successfully construed the sculptures as pre-national by presenting ancient Athens as a lost utopia disconnected from contemporary Greece. In this way, they belong to everybody but to nobody in particular. This is the organizational position of the British Museum, and is the ontological underpinning of British national identity.
In some ways the Parthenon sculptures present a unique case. Indeed, this is the framing adopted by those who call for the return of the sculptures to Greece. Asserting unique features – the sculptures’ unusual beauty, say, or their rare place in Athenian history – perhaps is meant to reassure British Museum authorities that returning these objects would not open the floodgates to other nations’ repatriation demands.
The Parthenon sculptures are one-of-a-kind, just as every artistic creation is, but as a case of social history and identity struggle it belongs to a robust category. This is the category of cultural heritage, a framing that pushes us to consider broader questions related to culture, nations, and identity in the twenty-first century.
Three open questions about cultural heritage:
Who decides? “Cultural heritage” is a socially constructed idea. As anthropologist and archaeologist Lynn Meskell has shown, women and men from the Global South do not always see eye to eye with their counterparts from the North when it comes to heritage policy. This is due to deep structural differences in what counts as cultural “goods” and how best to use policy and enforcement tools to protect or manage them. In Elgin’s time, the decision to remove the Parthenon marbles was justified on grounds that British authorities knew best how to care for and appreciate the sculptures. This is a paternalistic view that has proved surprisingly robust through two centuries. Every instance of heritage destruction draws international attention and, often, derision. But for every explosion of a Bamiyan Buddha there are hundreds of unremarked instances of local people looking after artifacts and sites in simple, every day ways. This pushes us to think about broader issues surrounding custodianship, preservation, and the natural flow of production and decay in cultural products. Such issues are being tackled by anthropologists working in the critical cultural heritage field, and curious readers should explore those studies for more cases and potential answers.
- Evaluation to what end? Cultural heritage’s inestimable worth is a double-edged sword. Some sort of quantitative value, whether in monetary units, number of jobs produced, or museum visits recorded, is required for the requisite resources to be marshalled to protect a particular site, object, or monument. But just as Members of Parliament in 1817 struggled to put a value on the Parthenon sculptures, so contemporary scholars and policymakers wrestle with core philosophical problems: Does history have a monetary value? In instances of conflicting valuations, whose do we adopt? And if members of the cultural group whose “heritage” is said to be at stake, wish to sell their heritage site and use the money for other purposes, should that be allowed? Each of these questions is attracting substantive and specific attempts at answers, yet each one remains open.
What role should the public play? As I write this, a growing group of campaigners and enthusiasts play an active role in monitoring the global circulation of artifacts and artworks. There is a handful of virtual platforms for this work, including blogs, non-profit discussion groups, and Chasing Aphrodite – probably the best known among them. Plans are now underway for an open source web platform, provisionally named “WikiLoot,” for the dissemination and analysis of primary source records and photographs documenting the global trade in looted antiquities. The idea behind WikiLoot and other social media tools is to engage a broad community of contributors, from curious citizens to policymakers, journalists, and professional archaeologists, in monitoring the global flow of artifacts. The proposed WikiLoot site has drawn intense criticism, mainly on grounds that the trade in cultural goods is too sensitive and important to involve inexpert members of the public. But who is entitled to have a voice in these exchanges? How would an Elginesque “rescue” of an ancient monument play out via WikiLoot today?