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THE PARTHENON REPORT: Fish and floodgates


That we broke their statues,
that we drove them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean the gods are dead at all.

– IONIEN, Constantin Cavafy

A red herring comes by its color not by nature but by artifice, soaking for several days in a strong brine followed by a good full smoking, after which it can be left, red and tangy, in the pantry or shed. for months until it is needed. In the days of fox hunting on horseback and dog, such a herring was sometimes dragged along the trail to try and trick dogs trained to follow a scent. This is how the expression “a red herring” came to its most commonly used meaning: a clue, argument or information used to mislead, deceive or distract from the main topic or a topic. important question.

In its revolving menu of arguments for the continued conservation of the Parthenon sculptures, the British Museum regularly serves up a classic red herring known to the museum world as the “valve argument,” which is commonly deployed by desperation when put in a corner by demands. for the return of an artifact. In its most basic form, the argument is this: If the British Museum agreed to return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece, it would set a dangerous precedent and open the floodgates to a torrent of other claims which, according to the former museum director Sir David Wilson (1977 – 1992): “would dismantle the museum” and “initiate a process of cultural vandalism”.

When speaking to the press or testifying before Parliament, Museum politicians and directors regularly use this argument – and the specter of empty museums – to create panic and change the subject. This is a common form of hijacking or rhetorical evasion, used by opponents of change in all walks of life, whether it is allowing Harry Potter books in school libraries (” They encourage devil worship! ”) Or coeducation (“ Civilization as we know it would end if girls were allowed to study alongside boys! ”)

In a previous column I quoted the 1890 article by Frederick Harrison in the London Journal The nineteenth century, and today I will also quote the hysterical response to this article by the newspaper’s editor, James Knowles in March 1891 – a classic red herring from the annals of this debate. First up, here’s what Mr. Harrison had to say in his article titled “Give Back the Elgin Marbles”.

“The Parthenon marbles are a thousand times more expensive and more important to the Greek nation than they could ever be to the English nation, who simply bought them … Of course, the man from Pall Mall or in the club chair has its sneer ready – ‘Are you going to send all the statues back to where they were found?’ This is all absurd. The Elgin Marbles stand on an entirely different footing from all other statues. They are not statues: they are an integral part of a unique building, the most famous in the world. “- Frederick Harrison, The nineteenth century (1890).

So here is what Mr Knowles had to say, in a tirade that differs very little from the arguments used today – except that Britain has no more colonies – only friends and partners to win or lose.

“What cannot the Pharisee platform of Gibraltar, Malta, India, Burma (sic), Hong Kong, Cape Town, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, say, from IRELAND? Won’t every motive imaginable cry aloud in her Pecksniffian bosom to purge herself of all this perilous substance until England, devoid of all that God and her ancestors gave her, stands naked and not ashamed in the midst of a Salvation Army clamor – clothed only in self-righteousness and self-applause and the laughing stock of the whole world? It is the logic of “giving back the Elgin Marbles”. – James Knowles (1891).

The point is, however, that while the countries mentioned by Mr. Knowles have since gained independence, the heavens have not fallen, and the relations between Britain and its former colonies, although now quite different, are more stable and undeniably more equitable. Likewise, the return of many artefacts held by the “encyclopedic” museums of the world has also taken place despite similar prophecies of doom – but the consequences have been almost entirely beneficial to these institutions and produced a wave of cooperation with them. nations and communities. In the question.

Nazi booty
When the British Museum was confronted with evidence that among its collection of 8 million objects there were a number of drawings stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners, museum administrators quickly worked with Parliament to ensure the passage of Holocaust Law (Return of Cultural Property), which enabled the Museum to return these drawings to their rightful heirs – as was just and proper. Special legislation has been enacted. No valve opened. The museum has been strengthened.

Tombs, skulls and totems
Human tissue Alaw was adopted by Parliament in 2004, followed in 2007 by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which confers on these peoples “the right to the repatriation of human remains and to the restitution of spiritual goods taken without their free and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs”. Soon after, the world’s leading museums and universities adjusted their ethical standards to meet demands for repatriation of these spiritual remains and goods. The resulting dialogue with indigenous communities opened, not floodgates, but doors of cooperation. In fact, when examining the British Museum’s policy on Human remains in the collection, we are struck by the rigor, sensitivity and respect for this policy.

THE PARTHENON REPORT: Fish and valves 5
Bronzes from Benin, photo by Alan Eastland (Alamy)

Justice delayed but not denied
In 2017, French President Macron announced that he would return to Africa all the treasures looted by French troops during the colonial wars, declaring that: “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums”. It was a cannon shot heard around the world, a challenge for every museum or university holding African art from colonial times. Some museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art immediately engaged in dialogue with African nations in search of restitution of their cultural heritage, while The Netherlands, as a nation, has taken the lead in policy and action regarding the repatriation of objects that have been obtained “under unfair or inequitable circumstances”, forging new and creative relationships with the countries of origin in the process.

Return criteria
The main reason the “valves” argument is seen as a distraction and change topic is because it is wrong. Very few objects in museum or university collections qualify for return according to the very narrow criteria commonly used to judge repatriation requests: the people to which they originally belonged? Second, has this heritage been unjustly removed, by force, deception, occupation or war – in violation of the informed consent of the people whose culture it represents? And third, if this important heritage was returned, are the conditions met for its safety, maintenance, study and public appreciation? In this context, it is clear that only a very limited number of objects from the collection of 8 million objects of the British Museum would be eligible for repatriation. If the return of the Parthenon sculptures did indeed set a precedent for the return of other objects that also meet these narrow criteria, such as the Benin bronzes (after the establishment of a suitable museum to protect and display them), then they should also be returned, and this should be seen as an opportunity, not as a disaster. Such feedback would help put the Museum on a course more consistent with its mission as an educational institution and a resource and example for the community.

Floodgates # 1: Red herring
There are three valves in this story. First there are the floodgates of the British Museum and some politicians want us to believe that they would open if the sculptures were returned, emptying the museum and destroying a great institution. It’s the red herring version, all restless, boastful, hysterical, and misdirected. However, a calm assessment of the criteria for return – as well as a consideration of the opportunities involved in establishing constructive relations with countries of origin – led Dr. Jeanette Greenfield, author of the definitive book on this subject, ” The return of cultural treasures “to conclude:

Over time, the idea that certain major treasures selected according to certain fixed criteria must be returned cannot be regarded as the chimera of liberals and lost academics, nor as the abandonment of the national interest, nor as hasty action. , which cause the ultimate absurdity – the return of everything. “

Rain in the Duveen gallery © 2021 Yannis Dalkidis

Floodgates # 2: The Leaky Roof
The only “valves” the British Museum has to worry about, and which have already started to open, are the roof and ceilings of the museum, especially above galleries 12-18 housing the collections of Greek antiques. which include the Parthenon sculptures. Umbrellas and rubber boots now recommended.

Floodgates # 3: Gratitude, generosity and opportunity
The third and final valves in our history have never been properly considered by the UK government or the museum. These are the floodgates of gratitude, generosity and opportunity that would open around the world if Britain decided to voluntarily return these sculptures. I know about a dozen Greek families who would gladly commit to repairing the Museum’s leaky roof and a dozen others who would gladly fund the creation of exact replicas to replace the Sculptures currently in the Duveen Gallery. This is only a fraction of the support and opportunities that would result from such a gesture.


NEXT WEEK: Don Morgan Nielsen will examine the concept of a “universal museum” and what it means.


In this bicentenary year of the birth of the modern Greek state, both pandemic and festive, Greek city weather is proud to present readers with a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture regarding the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon sculptures back to Athens.

Classical, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with a growing international team to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate and reunify the Parthenon sculptures.

Click here to read ALL EDITIONS of the Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen