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Elgin Marbles Controversy


The Greek government wants the Parthenon sculptures back. It says the works were stolen. The British Museum says they were bought legally 200 years ago while Greece was under Ottoman rule. The dispute has been going on for years, and David D'Arcy reports Britain is under international pressure to return them in time for the 2004 Olympics.

DAVID D'ARCY reporting:

Tracking the dispute over the fifth century Parthenon sculptures, or Elgin Marbles as many in Britain call them, is a bit like Cold War Kremlinology. Signs or nuances might or might not mean something. This spring, the Greek government brought an exhibition of photographs detailing the Parthenon's dismemberment by trophy hunters over the centuries to the European Union in Brussels and appealed for the sculptures' return. It was just about the same time that the British Museum's financial crisis led to huge budget cuts and layoffs. Also, the chairman of the British Museum's board broke with policy and met with the new head of the British Committee to return the Elgin Marbles. In Athens, Jules Dassin senses movement.

Mr. JULES DASSIN (Director): It's a sign that, for the first time, there's a very gentlemanly fashion of saying `let's talk.' That has not happened in this way before.

D'ARCY: Dassin is the American-born director of film classics like "Never On Sunday" and "Rififi." He began demanding the sculptures' return in the 1970s with his late wife, the actress and former Green cultural minister, Melina Mercouri. And recent pressure on the British has not been limited to Greece. In one British poll, a majority there supported sending the Marbles back. The Australian Parliament endorsed that position, and some American politicians have joined the chorus. The British Museum is between directors. Its new head, Neil McGregor, starts August 1st. The museum won't let curators comment on the dispute, but Carol Homden, head of marketing, said public pressure isn't changing policy.

Ms. CAROL HOMDEN: I think it is extremely unlikely. First of all, there is no museum in Athens and work on the promised museum has, as we understand it, not yet started. And that museum is desperately needed. But most importantly, the British Museum has a duty to the visitors in London, thousands of whom come every day especially to see the Parthenon sculptures amongst the other cultures of the world.

D'ARCY: Museum officials also say they are better equipped to preserve the sculptures. Greeks won't accept that, says archaeologist Christos Doumas, who recently organized a show of Cycladic sculpture at the Onassis Foundation in Manhattan.

Mr. CHRISTOS DOUMAS (Archaeologist): It is like you tell a shepherd, `If you don't guard your flock properly, I will steal the animals.' Is that correct? The sculptures of Parthenon were stolen.

D'ARCY: The Greeks just want a new tourist attraction, says Michael Daley, an editorial illustrator for The Independent in London and a sculptor by training who heads ArtWatch UK, a group that monitors the effects of restoration on works of art in museums. Daley fears setting a precedent in giving in to what he calls the restitutionists. He says there's no point in taking the sculptures out of the hands of scholars at the British Museum and sending them to what he predicts will be an Athenian theme park.

Mr. MICHAEL DALEY (Editorial Illustrator, The Independent): The bottom line is what the Greeks want is to have those sculptures in a dedicated museum in Athens that would charge fees to the public and would be part of its tourist industry. The case that they're vital to the sense of the modern Greek soul and spiritual identification is disowned even by Greeks. Essentially now, the Marbles, like virtually the whole of antiquity in Greece, is seen as a social good, as a cultural property that is out there in the real world and that has material value.

D'ARCY: The dispute has intensified with the publication of the new history of the Parthenon, by Mary Beard of Cambridge University. Today's symbol of Athenian democracy was a church and a mosque for much longer periods than it was a Greek temple, but now, she says, every Westerner is claiming ownership to the Parthenon. Beard agrees with the Greeks that monuments make more sense in or nearby their original sites. But she thinks that the sculptures have been at the British Museum so long that they're now part of that historical fabric. The dispute's darker side, she says, is the nationalism in both camps.

Ms. MARY BEARD (Author): Well, I can see that the Greek nation, the Greek politicians have played on the Elgin Marbles as a very, very convenient way of continuing to bind their country together. I don't think that nationalism works very well in terms of these great cultural symbols. And nationalism doesn't work the other way around when you get, you know, some kind of appalling Brits, you know, saying, `We should never let them go because they're ours,' or alternatively, `We can look after them better.' And I think that's bonkers.

D'ARCY: In Athens, Jules Dassin says the Marbles' fate isn't any single nation's cause.

Mr. DASSIN: I think this is one of the great cultural injustices ever. I think if I were an Eskimo, knowing and seeing what was done, I would react the same way.

D'ARCY: A newcomer to this debate is David Rudenstine, a constitutional historian who's now dean of Cardozo Law School in New York. He's published his research on the legal grounds for removing sculptures from the Parthenon in law journals. The 1801 Ottoman document that originally permitted the removal has been lost, he says. An Italian translation of that document was really a draft, he argues, and an English translation of it was rewritten in 1816 to convince the British Parliament to buy the sculptures from Elgin who needed money. Even then, Rudenstine says, Elgin's critics in Parliament felt the former ambassador had simply looted them.

Mr. DAVID RUDENSTINE (Cardozo Law School): One of the interesting things is how the West, if you will, or as I say, the museum culture of the West has absorbed into the marrow of its bones the belief that the British got permission in the first place. How that happened, I don't really know. But any close examination of the facts will establish that they cannot prove that they got permission and the evidence that does exist would indicate that they never asked for permission and never got permission.

D'ARCY: So far, Rudenstine hasn't heard from London.

Mr. RUDENSTINE: My experience is that the British Museum officials pretend like I and my work don't exist. They certainly don't respond to it. They've never tried to rebut it.

D'ARCY: Greece has not filed an official request for the sculptures' return; nor has it filed suit in a British court, assuming such a claim would be struck down. In Cambridge, Mary Beard says citing the law from two centuries ago is about as useful as determining whether witches were legally burned. For better or worse, she says, she can accept keeping the sculptures in London.

Ms. BEARD: I'm one of the very, very, very few fence-sitters. I think that it's a pity they came, but I haven't seen any strong reason for sending them back.

D'ARCY: Greek archaeologist Christos Doumas warns that his country's resolve should not be underestimated.

Mr. DOUMAS: If we did not believe, we would never fight. Some day, I hope mankind moves to better morals.

D'ARCY: Greeks are now facing protests from archaeologists in Athens, who say historical sites are being bulldozed to make way for the new Parthenon museum. Mary Beard's new book, "The Parthenon," will be published in this country next spring. There's no plan for a Greek edition. For NPR News, I'm David D'Arcy in New York.

BRAND: And it's 29 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.