Ancient Artifacts In The Modern World: Provenance, Possession, And Cultural Heritage

2187 words - 9 pages

After a recent lecture by Dr. Dyfri Williams, Research Keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, several members of the audience stood up on behalf of Greece and expressed their outrage at the British Museum’s refusal to return the Parthenon Sculptures, or the Elgin Marbles, to the city of Athens. Dr. Williams answered their scathing interjections with a well-rehearsed summary of the issues key points and complexities of the issue, and it was clear he encountered such protests regularly. By now, even the casual student of history is at least aware of the debate surrounding the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures. On the one hand, the British Museum appears to have legal ownership over the sculptures according to the various councils and summits that have hammered out the finer points of international art law in the last century. On the other hand, the Greeks maintain that the sculptures were sold out from under them by the occupying Ottoman Empire and should be returned to Greece as symbols of her national heritage. However, while the debate over the sculptures is far from resolution, the issue is indicative of a larger dilemma currently facing the art world; that is, what rights can a museum exercise over works in its possession? And in turn, what rights does a country have over works of art found on its soil?
Debate over the Parthenon Sculptures has raged since well before they were removed from the building itself. As Dr. Williams recounted in his lecture, the Parthenon has a much more storied past than it is often given credit for. At various times it has been used as a church, a mosque, and finally, as a storeroom for the gunpowder of the Ottoman garrison occupying the city of Athens. It was in this final phase during the attempted invasion of Greece by the Venetian navy that the Parthenon was shelled and suffered catastrophic damage when the stores of gunpowder exploded, killing the hundreds of Ottoman women and children who had been sent to hide in the building during the fighting. It was only after this event that the Parthenon took on its shape as it is seen today, blending in with the many other ruins that fill that part of the world. However, even after the explosion, much of the sculpture from the frieze and metopes remained, occasionally falling on the unsuspecting pedestrian, and it was in the early nineteenth century that the newly appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, began to remove them with the full written permission of the emperor.
There were certainly documented protests by ethnic Greeks regarding the removal of the sculptures. At various points in the removal of the sculptures, residents around the Parthenon as well as Greek workers engaged in the operation claimed that the removal of the sculptures had upset the balance of the spirits inhabiting the marble. However, it is unclear if these protests were ever lodged in any official capacity, and if they were, neither the...

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