Dear Mrs. Clooney,
With the deepest respect for your concern regarding the Parthenon marbles, I write you to share my perspective on restitution and offer humble advice for your endeavors.
The viper’s nest that is the subject of restitution is a complex and multifaceted problem for museums, nations, and individuals such as scholars and museum professionals. With regards to the Parthenon marbles, coined the Elgin marbles by the British Lord and diplomat who removed them from Greece, their plunder and destruction extend farther back than their removal to England in 1811 and sale to the British Museum in 1816.
In 1018, under Byzantine rule, the Parthenon was used as a Christian church. By 1458, the Turks ruled Greece and with the addition of a minaret, the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, as a result of the Venetian wars, the building used to house explosives was damaged when a stray rocket ignited the stores, irreparably damaging the building. What this history shows is the Parthenon’s utility to a multiple of cultural groups and nations since antiquity.
There are various reasons restitutionists and retentionists employ in their arguments for retention and restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.
1. Stewardship and care—Lord Elgin acted in the spirit of preservation ‘saving’ the marbles from Ottoman destruction and placing them in the safety of the British Museum.
2. The notion of global patrimony—the marbles and Acropolis as a whole is representative of Western culture and civilization, thus belonging to a greater global patrimony.
1. Contesting ownership—the marbles were illegally removed from Greece, while under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, thus consent was not given by the Greeks for their removal.
2. Cultural patrimony—the idea that certain objects/beliefs reflect a cultural community as a whole and are vital in maintaining their cultural practices.
In the spring of 2011 I wrote a paper entitled ‘The Elgin Marbles: A Resolvable Conflict’. This paper was seemingly naively titled as such because I was submitting it to the Thomas W. Adams award for ‘Solving a conflict in a Mediterranean country’. I was recommended by a professor to market this paper as such for the award committee and with luck, did receive the award for my paper.
My paper supported the restitution of the Parthenon marbles based on my anthropological background through my coursework as an undergraduate. The crux of my argument was grounded in a modern anthropological approach to archaeology, specifically the important of preserving context for archaeological sites. Thus, the return of the marbles to their home in Greece would somehow advance our understanding of them, shifting their current display as ‘works of art’ to their true use as decorative materials. These sentiments came from previous travels in 2010, first to London in the spring where I saw the marbles in the British Museum, where I confess, felt angry and resentful towards their display as an arrogant presentation of an empire’s plunder—with the inclusion of all the archaeological objects around me—namely some choice Egyptian artifacts which remain in contentious restitution debates as well. In the autumn of 2010 I traveled to Athens, walked that meditative trail to the Acropolis and took in the wondrous monuments, now mere skeletons of their original structures. The Acropolis today exudes the same romantic sentiments as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a ruined cathedral alone in a forest clearing. These two visits were important in shaping my opinion of restitution, and with my archaeological context argument—I didn’t want the Acropolis to be forgotten like Friedrich’s lonely cathedral. I felt I had helped contribute to an important cause.
Flash-forward a year to 2012 when I began my Masters coursework in Museum Studies at New York University. I came in guns firing over restitution, encouraged by a tremendously talented and accomplished professor who held not only her JD, but also a PhD in Classics. I was also fortunate to be inspired by my cohort, one student who I became fast friends with her held her Masters in Archaeology, specializing in Near Eastern archaeology. With new environments and new influences, it is obvious my field of vision was expanded. So when I took my Museums and the Law class, I started to see a chink in my restitutionist argument.
I must confess that my opinion has changed since my 2011 paper, though I have not abandoned the notion of restitution. Here is why: the restitution of antiquities is an impossible mess of politics and resentments that precede you and me by centuries.
Conquest and plunder has existed for centuries, not unsurprisingly around the same time the concept of the ‘museum’ was birthed. How museums came to be is a question that requires immense insight into human nature and social behavior. Elaine Heumann Gurian explains that collecting or hoarding is a natural human impulse perhaps a “maladaptive extension of the human need to accumulate things in order to survive”. Whether this is true or false, the statement supports the evidence that humans have been collecting food, tools, objects, and trinkets and more for thousands of years in the desire to live more contentedly. Certainly, status can be represented and enforced by the power of one’s resources. Because of this, collecting draws on power politics to elevate status of individuals or nations. Naturally, conquest and colonialism have had active roles in museum history.
The ancient empires of Greece and Rome capitalized on collecting caches of art, artifacts and goods from their expanding territories. As Edward Alexander explains in Museums in Motion, the word ‘museum’ from denoted a temple dedicated to the Muses, goddesses that resigned over drama, music, love, poetry, oratory, history, dance and astronomy. Because temples were built for gods and maintained by priests, these museums did not welcome a public audience. However, there were public exhibitions in the ancient world, collections valued by their community “for their aesthetic, historic, religious [and] magical importance”. Thus, collecting has always had the duality of public and private use since ancient times. While objects were revered and often kept from the public, access to such collections have slowly expanded to broader audiences over time. In ancient Egypt, the museum and library of Alexandria welcomed scholars and scientists to research the scrolls, artifacts and botanical and zoological specimen within the collection. What ancient museology practices demonstrate are how collecting has been used by conquering empires to not only indicate status and but also maintain status.
While we think we live in a globalize world today, the ancients too were industrious traders, movers and shakers, and plunder was transported as any other good. This was part of the times. Even in modern times, when the United States invaded Iraq, the national museum in Baghdad was plundered by people of that very nation. You know well enough Hitler’s agenda for art plunder as means to propagate a notion of Western culture from your husband’s blockbuster film…I do not condone these activities, but alas they are a symptom of empires and nation building.
But let’s take a step back to the Parthenon marbles, removed from Greece in the early 19th century. Ancient Greece was by no means a homogenous population of Greeks. Quite the contrary, ancient Athens was comprised of a multitude of ethnic groups. The Parthenon marbles belonged to Athens, which means the people in Athens—the entire complexity of ethnic populations that created, worshipped at, and maintained these structures. But we must recognize that the modern nation of Greece bares little resemblance to the ancient city-state of Athens. Modern Greeks do not worship a pantheon of gods. Modern Greeks do not actively utilize their ancient structures for religious practices. Even the 19th century Greeks at the time of Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles did not practice the same religious beliefs at the ancient Athenians. Even the cultural patrimony case runs thin as modern Greeks, like their ancient ancestors are not a homogenous population—what ethnic/cultural group do these ruins belong to? The same problem could be presented to Turkey and Egypt, also active in their restitution cases that their modern populations bare little to their ancient counterparts and are as ethnically diverse now as they were then.
You are a human rights lawyer. My question is how does the retention of the Parthenon trigger a violation of human rights?
Article 9 from The European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, cites the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
If the Parthenon marbles are not to be actively used by modern Greeks for religion practices and for expressing modern Greek culture, then how is the denial of these objects’ return to Greece constitute a violation of human rights?
In short, the Parthenon marbles do not belong to modern Greeks. They belonged to the ancient Athenians, and now through their global notoriety, belong to the world and are symbolic of Western culture as a whole. They now belong to the whole of humanity.
I fear that your involvement in these matters can cloud these facts, given your undeniable celebrity. They could potentially complicate relationships between museums internationally. Tensions are already high. Turkey has threatened to suspend foreign archaeological permits until they receive the objects they are asking for. What is the end goal? To see objects go back at the risk of advancing the archaeological record and condoning healthy working relationships and international collaboration? There is certainly enough loot to go around.
Now museums could do a lot more to help current matters. On a previous blog post I decried museums’ support of looting and the black market of antiquities through their careless purchases of objects with no provenance. These rules must be obeyed without question. While plunder was acceptable to ancient civilization, it is not today and museums should not propagate those mentalities. We hold a higher standard today, but, is it fair to hold Lord Elgin and his actions to our modern standards? This apparent anachronism in social standards is the reason why restitution of antiquities is troublesome. The issue should not be neglected, but I merely offer my opinions as a museum professional and one that cares about maintaining relationships and collaboration.
If I may, I would like to turn your attention to a cause worthy of your human rights agenda. The repatriation of indigenous cultural materials—specifically sacred objects and human remains. There is precedence for cases like these and your status can greatly illuminate the concerns of disenfranchised indigenous peoples worldwide.
Paris auction house, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, recently sparked international media interest with its sale of Native American masks. In close resemblance to cases pertaining to the international restitution of antiquities, the Hopi tribe claimed that many of the seventy items for sale were sacred objects of cultural importance to the tribe and asked the auction house to delay the sale. The director of the house, Gilles Néret-Minet, was not amenable to their request. However with support from the United States Embassy in Paris, a Parisian municipal judge agreed to a hearing. To the tribe’s disappointment, the judge ruled in favor of the auction house and allowed the sale to continue. All but five of the Hopi masks were sold, totaling $1.2 million dollars. Throughout the week of this heated cultural debate, the United States government remained silent, offering no support to the Hopi. What was the government’s stance on this issue and why was there no attempt to intervene in this sale to protect its citizens’ cultural property?
What this poignant story exemplifies is the disparity between the United States’ commitment to policies protecting the patrimony of foreign countries and the country’s efforts to protect the patrimony of the Native communities within its borders. In terms of Nazi-era and antiquities restitution, the United States has been an active participant in establishing legislation and international treaties to aid in foreign restitution efforts. Nevertheless, despite the government’s enactment of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, this domestic effort falls short of the standard set by foreign countries in protecting their patrimony.
Unlike the modern nation of Turkey, which has hosted a multitude of ancient and modern cultures within its geographical borders, a single indigenous group like the Hopi have retained many of the same customs, beliefs and practices today as they did during the time of their colonialism. Because many indigenous cultures have not altered their traditional beliefs or practices (even while adopting aspects of modern society), the claim for human remains and objects is supported by such arguments of sovereignty, self-determination and human rights.
So what is it about indigenous restitution that triggers concerns for human rights? The use of sacred or ceremonial objects and the treatment of ancestral human remains are fundamental to many indigenous peoples’ religion and beliefs, and are considered by NAGPRA. Honor Keeler explains it best, stating:
Where an artifact is of significant importance to the culture or the religious beliefs of an indigenous people then arguably the continued retention of such an artifact by a museum could amount to a denial of such peoples’ right to maintain their culture or to manifest their religion, thus engaging Articles 8 and 9 of the Convention.”
This “convention” Keeler refers to is the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, of which Article 9 cites the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is these key human rights that support the argument for indigenous restitution and have paved the way for the current domestic legislation on repatriation within the United States and other countries.
In spring 2013 at NYU I wrote a paper on a theoretical framework for the international repatriation of indigenous cultural materials and human remains. The support of this agenda could greatly improve not only relationships between indigenous peoples and museum professionals and international governments, but I firmly believe that collaboration on an international scale could greatly contribute to the current state of scholarship. Contrary to public perception, repatriation under NAGPRA did not result in the emptying of museums’ collections. Rather, the outcome of such legislation promoted a resurgence of research into museums’ ethnological collections, collaborations between Native communities and museums to create exhibitions and public programing, Native interpretations of objects, and the formation of numerous tribally operated museums, community and cultural centers. Of all these benefits from this legislation, NAGPRA was very much a declaration of the U.S. government’s attempt to decolonize their federally funded museums and move forward in support of a post-colonial agenda with regards to the autonomy of Native Americans concerning their cultural property as well as recognition of their human rights as defined by the Convention.
I believe these same goals can be accomplished on an international scale and your assistance could get serious results. There are living people today being denied their cultural patrimony and they need your help. To be blunt—the long dead ancient Greeks could not care less. The living global indigenous population does.