THE PARTHENON REPORT: Of Fish and Floodgates

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That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.

- IONIAN, Constantine Cavafy

A red herring comes by its colour not by nature but by artifice, soaking for several days in strong brine followed by a good, thorough smoking, after which it can be left, ruddy and pungent, in the pantry or shed for months until required. In the old fox-hunting days of horse and hound, such a herring was sometimes dragged across the trail to try to deceive the hounds being trained to follow a scent. That is how the phrase “a red herring” came by its more commonly used meaning: a clue, argument or information used to mislead, deceive or distract from the main topic or important question.

On its rotating menu of arguments for continued retention of the Parthenon Sculptures, the British Museum regularly serves up a classic red herring known throughout the museum world as “the floodgates argument”, which is usually deployed out of desperation when backed into a corner by claims for an artifact’s return. In its most basic form the argument goes like 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 former director of the Museum Sir David Wilson (1977 – 1992): “would dismantle the museum” and “start a process of cultural vandalism.”

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

In a previous column, I have quoted from Frederick Harrison’s 1890 article in the London journal The Nineteenth Century, and today will also quote the hysterical response to that article by the journal’s editor, James Knowles in March of 1891 – a classic red herrings from the annals of this debate. First, here is what Mr. Harrison had to say in his article entitled “Give Back the Elgin Marbles.”

“The Parthenon Marbles are to the Greek nation a thousand times more dear and more important than they can ever be to the English nation, which simply bought them…Of course the man in Pall Mall or in the club armchair has his sneer ready – 'Are you going to send all statues back to the spot where they were found?’ This is all nonsense. The Elgin Marbles stand upon a footing entirely different from all other statues. They are not statues: they are integral parts of a unique building, the most famous in the world..”   - Frederick Harrison, The Nineteenth Century (1890).

Here then is what Mr. Knowles had to say, in a tirade that differs very little from arguments used today – except that Britain no longer has colonies – only friends and partners to gain or lose.

“What cannot the platform-Pharisee say of Gibraltar, Malta, India, Burmah (sic), Hong Kong, the Cape, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, IRELAND? Will not every imaginable motive cry aloud in his Pecksniffian bosom to purge himself of all this perilous stuff till England, denuded of every possession which God and her forefathers gave her, shall stand up naked and not ashamed in the midst of a Salvation Army clamour – clothed only in self-righteousness and self-applause and the laughing stock of the whole world? This is the logic of ‘giving back the Elgin Marbles." – James Knowles (1891).

The thing is, however, that while the countries mentioned by Mr. Knowles have since gained their independence, the heavens did not fall, and relations between Great Britain and her former colonies, while now quite different, are more stable and undeniably more equitable. In like manner, the return of many artifacts held by the world’s “encyclopedic” museums has also taken place despite similar prophesies of doom – but the consequences have been almost entirely beneficial to those institutions and have produced a flurry of cooperation with the nations and communities in question.

Nazi Loot
When the British Museum was confronted by evidence that among its collection of 8 million objects there were a number of drawings stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners, the Museum trustees were quick to work with Parliament to assure passage of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act, which enabled the Museum to return such drawings to their rightful heirs – as was just and proper. Special legislation was enacted. No floodgates opened. The Museum was strengthened.

Graves, Skulls and Totem Poles
The Human Tissue Act was passed by Parliament in 2004, followed in 2007 by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitles such peoples “to the right of repatriation of human remains and to the restitution of spiritual property taken without their free and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.” Soon thereafter, the world’s major museums and universities adjusted their ethics standards to address claims for repatriation of such remains and spiritual property. The resulting dialogue with indigenous communities has opened, not floodgates, but doors of cooperation. In fact, when reviewing the British Museum’s Policy on Human Remains in the Collection,  one is struck by how thorough, sensitive and respectful that policy is.

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Benin Bronzes, photo by Alan Eastland (Alamy)

Justice Delayed But Not Denied
In 2017, President Macron of France announced that he would return to Africa all treasures plundered by French troops during colonial wars, declaring that: “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums.” This was a cannon shot heard round the world, a challenge to every museum or university holding African art from colonial times. Some museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art immediately entered into dialogue with African nations seeking the return of their cultural heritage, while The Netherlands, as a nation, has taken the lead in both policy and action with regard to repatriating objects which were obtained “under unfair or inequitable circumstances”, forging creative new relations with source countries in the process.

The Criteria For Return
The principal reason that the “floodgates” argument is considered a red herring meant to distract and change the subject is that it is untrue. Very few objects in museum or university collections actually qualify for return under the very narrow criteria commonly used to judge repatriation claims: First, can such an artifact objectively be considered “important” and a “key” to the historical, religious or cultural identity of the people to whom it originally belonged? Second, was this heritage removed unfairly, by force, deceit, occupation or war - in violation of the informed consent of the people whose culture it represents? And thirdly, if this important heritage were returned, do the conditions exist for its security, proper care, study and public appreciation? Within this context, it is clear that only a very limited number of objects in the British Museum’s 8-million-object collection would qualify for repatriation. If the return of the Parthenon Sculptures did indeed establish a precedent for the return of other objects which also fit these narrow criteria, such as the Benin Bronzes (after a proper museum is created to protect and display them), then they too should be returned, and this should be seen as an opportunity, not a catastrophe. Such returns would help put the Museum on a path more consistent with its mission as an educational institution and a resource and example for the community.

Floodgates #1: The Red Herring
There are three floodgates in this story. First are the floodgates the British Museum and some politicians want us to believe would open if the Sculptures were returned, emptying the Museum and destroying a great institution. This is the red-herring version, all fluster, bluster, hysterics and misdirection. However, a calm assessment of the criteria for return – as well as a consideration of the opportunities involved in establishing constructive relations with source countries – led Dr. Jeanette Greenfield, author of the definitive work on this subject, “The Return of Cultural Treasures” to conclude:

With time, the view that certain major treasures selected under certain fixed criteria ought to be returned may not be regarded as the pipe dream of misguided liberals and scholars, nor as the abandonment of national self-interest, nor as a precipitate action, which will cause the ultimate absurdity – the return of everything.”

3 Rain in the Duveen Gallery @2021 Yannis Dalkidis 1
Rain in the Duveen Gallery © 2021 Yannis Dalkidis

Floodgates #2:  The Leaky Roof
The only “floodgates” the British Museum actually needs to worry about, and which have already begun to open, are the Museum’s own roof and ceilings, especially over Galleries 12-18 housing the collections of Greek antiquities which include the Parthenon Sculptures. Umbrellas and Wellies now recommended.

Floodgates #3: Gratitude, Generosity and Opportunity
The third and final floodgates in our story have never been properly considered by the British Government or Museum. These are the floodgates of gratitude, generosity and opportunity which would open around the world if Britain decided to voluntarily return these Sculptures. I know a dozen Greek families who would gladly undertake to repair the Museum’s leaky roof and another ten who would happily finance the creation of exact replicas to replace the Sculptures now sitting in the Duveen Gallery. This is only a fraction of the support and opportunities which would result from such a gesture.

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


In this bicentennial year since the birth of the modern Greek State, of both pandemic and celebration, Greek City Times is proud to introduce readers to a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture concerning the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon Sculptures back to Athens.

Classicist, 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