It is November 28. We are in an exclusive hotel on London’s golden mile, opposite the Beaufort Gardens: the Knightsbridge. A new meeting – leaked by the press – between the president of the board of trustees of the British Museum, the former English minister George Osborne and the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis augurs a happy ending for one of the best-known archaeological controversies of the last 200 years: that of the Parthenon marbles, exhibited in the British Museum since 1839.
This is a sensational repertoire of continuous metopes and friezes sculpted by Phidias for the architectural symbol of the time when Athens was “the school of all Greece”, as its ruler Pericles claimed. Some reliefs that, in 1812, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and English ambassador to Turkey, sold to his government. Greece has systematically demanded its return to Athens but Great Britain has refused to do so.
How did the reliefs get to England?
It all began between 1801 and 1805, as one more manifestation of the colonial procedures that so many countries –especially France, England and Germany– developed in their imperialist policies. Perhaps the state of neglect and abandonment in which Greece had the Parthenon for centuries helped.
The reliefs were collected by Thomas Bruce, the English ambassador in Athens in the years of the Ottoman rule of this country. The aforementioned official had them in his possession until he went bankrupt and decided to sell them to the English Parliament citing a purchase-sale document signed by the local sultan. A document that, however, most critics consider false.
Although Parliament was divided in the vote –among the votes against was that of the romantic writer Lord Byron– the reliefs were finally bought. Thus they saved Elgin from ruin and provided England with archaeological material on a par with that which at that very moment France was acquiring for the Louvre and Germany for the Pergamonmuseum or which, through more or less legitimate purchases, reached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. England deposited them in the British Museum – the same one that barely a decade ago already had the Egyptian Rosetta stone.
Archeology was then conceived as a collecting antiquarianism. It started from the basis that the societies of the moment improved by contemplating the artistic legacy of the civilizations that were considered the culmination of Western culture. Having splendid archaeological materials in museums was a source of cultural pride, even if they were foreign.
Greece claims refund
When Greece, in the 1920s, recovered its autonomy from the Turks, it began to demand the return to Athens of such an outstanding artistic and archaeological repertoire. The arguments – which, above all, intensified from the 1980s onwards and in which UNESCO also mediated – always coincided in the same, legitimate terms: the pieces left Greece without a legal sale and the ancient monuments they must be contemplated and enjoyed in their primary, unitary context, and not with their disintegrated elements.
Great Britain defended itself against these theses by claiming a legal purchase of Elgin. It also put on the negotiation table the criterion that, of course, must always prevail in patrimonial matters: guarantee the conservation of the property above any other circumstance. As in so many other cases, some also in Spain, this argument is part of the very history of the disputed object.
It is true that, at least until 2009, when the new Acropolis Museum was built in Athens, the impressive collection of reliefs seemed to be better preserved more than 3,000 kilometers from the site of its primary context.
The reliefs in the future
We usually say that cultural heritage, particularly archaeological heritage, has something of an identity. It is a cultural success that communities in different corners of the world want to enjoy original archaeological pieces despite the fact that there are formulas to generate simple and reliable 3D replicas. This highlights the value we place on heritage as a historical fetish.
When there is no agreement, replicas can be a solution. When there is and, in addition, the state that claims guarantees the conservation of the asset, there is no doubt that this is the way to go.
A first step has already been taken in recent weeks by Sicily, which has returned one of the reliefs in the series to Athens in exchange for sculptural and ceramic material from Magna Graecia that belonged to it. Pope Francis, in an act that he has been quick to describe as purely religious, has also given the Greek Orthodox patriarch a couple of reliefs that were in the Vatican Museums.
2023 will be decisive to know if the reliefs of Phidias that still shine today in the British Museum will be exhibited a few meters from where this great Attic sculptor designed them around 460 BC. C. The precedent could be very suggestive although, certainly, it could also precipitate the dissolution of many of the archaeological collections of the great European museums.