Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Does the British Museum inform the public properly? by Hatto Fischer

Parthenon Marbles in British Museum - Part of the Melina Mercouri Exhibition in Athens


This article relates to the mission of museums in general and in particular to the policy on how the public shall be informed about the nature and background of the collections exhibited. There are many legal issues involved according to Ira Kaliampetsos. Here the case is examined if the British Museum informs the public properly about the background of the Parthenon marbles, alterately called the Elgin marbles. At the same time, the case study reflects upon the changing role of museums in the Information Society.

British Museum calls itself as Keeper of Civilizations and the experts linked to the Parthenon Marbles its keepers. This dates back to when the British Parliament bought the marbles from Lord Elgin and gave them to the British Museum 'to keep' them.

If accessibility to cultural heritage is a general priority for museums, then not without controversy while facing difficult choices, the Parthenon sculptures one such case, the other giving recognition to what cultural heritage?


Many museums in the West are caught in-between their traditional role as keepers of imperialist collections e.g. the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum such a case and the need to find a new role in safeguarding the cultural heritages of minorities not of other continents and back in time, but amidst the neighborhood around the museums. If they are going to point a new way into the future, recognition of cultural heritage will have to redefine and reinterpret the latter to make civil life possible.

The concept of being a keeper of Civilization is linked to the missions of those museums that aim to bring people closer to different civilizations. In the case of the British Museum, it means raising the awareness of the existence of different civilizations. Through special exhibitions and a series of educational events the museum focuses on what happens at cross-roads when different cultures meet, for it is a replica of what matters most when people of various origins, values and cultures come together, reinforce each other or else attempt to suppress and even annihilate the others.

There is another term for what the British Museum is doing, namely by ‘going beyond cultures to focus on civilizations as a more stable and permanent lineage of existence within a certain framework made up of values, technologies, economy, trade, language, arts and cultures’. The collections aim then to display the intrinsic values of these civilizations.

Altogether the British Museum’s policy is directed towards one essential service, namely providing access to civilizations and their findings i.e. collections. If taken as cultural monograms or what signatures these civilizations left behind, there has to be added the access is not self-understood. For one they still cannot be deciphered fully. Showing these collections is an ongoing dialogue between what is still unknown about them even today and what has become known in the meantime. Cultural heritage is in that sense a continuous discovery of new interpretation possibilities. It requires dedication and a long term learning process to facilitate what could be described as a ‘cultural adaptation’ to a largely unknown future but on the basis of these findings a good guidance.

This aim to provide accessibility is furthermore underlined by the general policy of the British Museum (like all other national museums of the UK) that no entrance fee is being asked from any visitors if they wish to see the Parthenon Marbles or for that matter any other collection in the British Museum. Naturally there are restricted areas for visitors e.g. the Library, but after the refurbishment, they can enter the library at the front and obtain a sense of what it may have been like when Karl Marx was using it.

Yet the British Museum is a controversial one precisely because these findings of other civilizations make up in essence ‘imperialist collections’ brought to Britain when the British Empire still prevailed and these collections served to fortify British rule as evidence of superiority and cultural distinctiveness.

One of the key issues surrounding the British Museum is the demand by Greece ever since Melina Mercouri raised her voice that the Parthenon Marbles be returned to their rightful place: the Acropolis. Greece states that this is not a rightful collection but stolen property, hence such public good and cultural heritage of Greece must be returned. Furthermore, in terms of ethics of museums’ practices as articulated by ICOM and AAM, i.e. in recognition of the need for museums to preserve the distinction and local identity of Cultural Heritage findings, the keeping of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum is a direct violation thereof.

Removing and taking things out of context, and this begins already with the removal of an icon from a church and hang it on a naked gallery wall, starts off an alienation process in terms of meanings [1] and contradicts the practical principles of preservation. Indeed many museums and galleries are guilty of such violation without really acknowledging that such practice leads not only to misinterpretations of other civilizations but also to false claims in terms of own cultural superiority. All this furthers false assertiveness rather than promoting inter-cultural dialogue.

In the case of the Parthenon sculptures, locality does play a role. Free access to them in a museum in London, so that they can be viewed just the same or even better, so the claim by the British Museum, is not the same as seeing them in the Greek light. Any artificial building will not be able to replace the Greek light which does matter when wishing to view these sculptures in their original as opposed to nowadays artificial setting. They are definitely not illuminated upon in the same way when seen under British grey sky. The latter is known to let only sparsely sunlight infiltrate the scarce rooms of the British Museum. [2]

There is a need to understand a bit better some of the issues raised by the British Museum housing the Parthenon marbles known otherwise by the one who brought them to England in the first place, namely Lord Elgin. This concerns not only the treatment of cultural heritage – as issues of protection and promotion – but the very controversial context in which they are presently placed in. The latter is an example as to what hinders access to cultural heritage rather than fulfills the mission the British Museum claims and supposed to be doing.

The Parthenon Marbles

The mission statement of the British Museum would obviously not be complete if this nuance of ‘keeping’ tradition by safeguarding also Western Civilization would go unnoticed. As keepers of collections representing these various civilizations, the British Museum’s official standpoint with regards to the Parthenon Marbles – in the book sold in the gift-shop they are called the Elgin Marbles – is that they are better kept in their premises than if returned to the Acropolis in Athens.

To set all facts straight and put them on public display, may be a laudable act but the text justifying why these marbles are in London and not in Athens shows already under what pressure the British Museum has come to justify the keeping of these sculptures rather than returning them to Greece. A closer look at the frank admittance by the British Museum that there is a controversy surrounding these marbles reveals through the very wording of texts on display on tableaus beside the sculptures that it is only a fake admission of something being wrong with how this collection got to the museum in the first place.

The official texts contain subtle wordings with loaded and twisted meanings while distortions of facts that can only be noticed by careful reading and by knowing the facts differently. To begin with the situation Greece found itself in when Lord Elgin arrived is told with a twist in historical recollection:

In 1799 Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, was appointed British Ambassador in Constantinople (Istanbul), capital of the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece had been a part for nearly 350 years. His subsequent actions have generated controversy ever since.

official text on display in the British Museum for public view July 2005

Any museum has the full responsibility to inform the public truthfully about the historical background of the matter and not to distort it in order to gain like a business man a vantage viewpoint by which things can be easily justified. In this case anyone knowing Greek history no one can agree that Greece “had been a part of nearly 350 years of the Ottoman Empire”. Greece was an occupied country very much like Iraq is today by American and British troops since they invaded that country on 21st of March  2003.

As it stands, the formulation suggests Greece was an integral part and this for 350 years (when it was 400 years of occupation). To follow such a vantage point, everything else is supposedly legitimized in terms of the actions undertaken by Lord Elgin. The story of the British museum is that he got legally and without any problem the permission for whatever he had set out to do from the Turkish authority. Nothing is said that this was the occupying authority and Greece was without a sovereign voice.

It is very curious but since when can an occupying power grant such a permission as then undertaken by Lord Elgin? Nowadays UNESCO and governments around the world are negotiating when it comes to protect respective cultural heritages in terms of ‘stolen cultural goods’ in order to prevent ‘illegal trade with cultural heritage artifacts’. That was used, for instance, in the aftermaths of the Iraq invasion when the museum in Baghdad was plundered and other sites of world heritage threatened. It is an international consensus on how cultural heritages ought to be treated. Safeguarding cultural heritage means above all not to deprive the people of their own memory base known otherwise as the ‘intangible’ component of cultural heritage. Only when people can articulate directly the meaning they give to artifacts of the past can they transcend their own narrow and confined national borders and uphold a dialogue with other cultures and civilizations.

For instance, Italy has just returned to Ethiopia a pinnacle that Mussolini had robbed when occupying that country. Unfortunately it takes time for those robbing countries to realize their mistakes. Occupying powers have anyone little or no regard for the cultural heritage of the country they occupy and next to raping women of the defeated nations, they have a greater interest in destroying or misusing that cultural heritage. It is the memory base of that country and therefore a source of identity. Consequently if the Turkish authority allowed the Acropolis to be defrauded, then such act as the one committed by Lord Elgin goes beyond doing just a service to his king and arts in Britain, for it was a direct service to Turkey interested as occupying power that the cultural heritage basis of the Greeks would be damaged and weakened in order to undermine any possible resistance. The latter goes hand in hand with self dignity and awareness of own potentialities as a sovereign culture.

Indeed cultural heritage can become easily a source of resistance against the occupying forces. For instance, Greek resistance erupted when two young men climbed up to the Acropolis and hoisted the Greek flag instead of Hitler’s Swastika during Second World War. Also it should not be forgotten that one of the greatest damages caused to the Acropolis came as a result of the Turkish troops using the Parthenon as munitions dump and then exploded when hit by a canon ball shot from a ship in Piraeus port. There are many other ironies involved when occupying forces invade another country. Many pointed out that while American troops moved quickly to guard the ministry for oil in the Iraq war which started March 2003, no troops were send to protect the museum from being plundered.

It is, therefore, not without irony when the British Museum points out that Lord Elgin stands in the tradition of aristocratic habits. It means in reality he did it to further financial gains but under the pretense to be doing something for a noble cause. Naturally it was a highly prestigious act to rob the Parthenon marbles while it shows all the subtleties in cultural diplomacy when looking how the British Museums presents then the acquisition. It is but another twist in the presentation of facts since Lord Elgin stood well in the tradition of bringing about another ‘imperial collection’.

Like other aristocratic travelers before him, Lord Elgin assembled a team to record Classical Greek buildings and sculptures for the benefit of the arts in Britain. His team reported on the continuing destruction of these monuments. In 1801 they were granted a firmer (letter of permission) that enabled them to remove antiquities from the Acropolis. This letter was accompanied by a senior Ottoman official, Raschid Aga, who agreed to the removal of sculptures from the Parthenon itself.

official text on display in the British Museum for public view July 2005

The alternative version has it that Lord Elgin had only permission to make drawings and sketches but never the permission to remove the sculptures from the Acropolis. He did it on his own accord, illegally and in realizing an unrepeatable opportunity since Istanbul was not exactly observant as to what he was doing on the Parthenon. The presence of Raschid Aga does not validate the claims of the British Museum but rather underlines even further what violation occurred at that moment when Lord Elgin started to remove parts of the Parthenon marbles.

Furthermore, anyone can write a report that the Acropolis is being destroyed in order to legitimize what follows afterwards. There was no validation of that report but it did help to mask the own vandalism by claiming the removal to be a noble cause. As a matter of fact, it should be noted that despite the reference of the British Museum text to ongoing destruction so as to paint Lord Elgin and his team in the positive light of being saviors of the Parthenon marbles, in reality they did not take great when removing the pieces. Once Lord Elgin seized upon the moment and decided instead of merely making drawings and sketches of them to make these pieces into his own collection, he used rather crude methods to remove them. He was also in a great hurry to get things done. He knew that he had only little time before others would be alarmed by such vandalism on the Acropolis and respond e.g. by exerting diplomatic influence upon the Turkish authorities not to let this happen. Alone the way Lord Elgin executed the removal – not in an orderly but hasty fashion – is evidence enough that he was fully aware as to what he was committing: a crime in terms of the history of mankind when it comes to safeguarding cultural heritage.

As the next official text on display in the British Museum for public viewing indicates, his motives were by far less noble even though the British Museum wants the public to make belief he did it for the “benefit of the arts in Britain”. In reality he did it out of petty greed and in an effort to gain prestige amongst the aristocratic class of England.

How naïve the reflections of the British Museum are on this matter, is revealed by the wording of the official text containing the passage beginning with “Lord Elgin soon realized the importance of his growing collection…” As if Lord Elgin was not fully aware at the outset of his undertaking but came only to realize the importance of these pieces once in his possession. When does private ownership lead to consciousness of the importance of cultural heritage? If that is the assumption, then the British Museum contradicts completely its own viewpoint based on assuring public access as prerequisite to any appreciation of cultural heritage over time as ‘the’ method to keep civilizations. To remind, Lord Elgin did gain access to the Acropolis under the circumstances of the Turkish authorities being the occupying power. Greece itself was at that time not a sovereign power and therefore unable to protect its own cultural heritage. It is naïve to suggest that the value of the Acropolis was not known at the time of Lord Elgin to scholars, philosophers, writers, academics, and politicians around the world and in Great Britain. Rather the Acropolis and in particular the Parthenon was fully known as birth place of Western Civilizations. [3]

Lord Elgin soon realized the importance of his growing collection and wrote to the British Museum in 1802 proposing a special gallery. His plans were interrupted when he was captured by the French on his way home in 1803 and by his subsequent financial troubles. In 1816, however, following an inquiry by a Select Committee, the British Parliament voted funds to enable the British Museum to purchase Lord Elgin’s collection.

official text on display in the British Museum for public view July 2005

What this text reveals is a huge distortion by the British Museum of the imperialist motive underlying his actions. It explains also in a distorted way how the British Parliament responded to it. The truth is that the British Parliament bought from Lord Elgin the collection of stolen items and then entrusted these to the Trustees of the British Museum, in order “to keep the Elgin marbles”. By buying illegally obtained cultural heritage artifacts and then converting it by an act of Parliament into a legally acquired property by the British Museum, the safeguarding of these stolen items is made into a double legal flint. Ever since Melina Mercouri started in recent times this demand for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Athens, all Greek governments find it hard to challenge this robbery. For they can no longer address the British Parliament since by this act the keeper is the British Museum while the British Museum can argue in turn that it has been entrusted officially by the British Parliament and therefore shall remain faithful to such a request to keep the Parthenon marbles. Neither the British Parliament nor the British Museum needs, therefore, to address the legal challenge. The British Parliament cannot command the Trustees of the British Museum to go against such a decree issued in the past while the Trustees recognize only such a legal base for keeping the marbles in London.

Accessibility as key argument

The British Museum prides itself in keeping these marble to provide access to everyone. By implication they would argue Greece is a remote country and not as readily visited as the millions that come to London and therefore to the British Museum.

The question is, if this argument still holds, especially in an age of communication and fast transportation making Athens just as accessible as London. The Olympic Games were held in Athens 2004 and no problems were incurred when the International Airport had to handle so many planes landing and taking off. Nearly 11 Million tourists came to Greece in 2005, most of them for the first time staying longer in Athens as a result of the city’s modernization and restoration especially of its archaeological sites and therefore accessing evidence of cultural heritages linked to the age of Pericles and the time when the Acropolis was constructed. The concept of the unification of archaeological sites has contributed among other things to ban car traffic around the Acropolis and thereby restoring the landscape of the past. In no way can the British Museum deny the argument that it would be most appropriate that the marbles would return to the place they came from originally and thereby allow the visitors become sensitive to both the architecture on the Acropolis and the sculptures that were created to give meaning to such a poetic, thoughtful and holy place.

If that argument of greater accessibility in London but not in Athens no longer holds, then the only other argument invoked by the British Museum needs closer examination. The British museum claims by keeping the marbles in London, they are saver from air pollution in Athens. Indeed, the Athens was famous for this in the past but no longer as pointed out above. The expulsion of car traffic from the vicinity of the Acropolis has contributed a great deal, but also the government’s policy to motivate people to stop using old cars and only drive new ones with newest devices to reduce emissions has helped. Moreover this argument about air quality or pollution can be taken further. By now it is highly doubtful if the air in London is any better than in Athens, if not worse!

Still, the text in the British Museums reads as follows:

“The sculptures now in the British museum were brought to England by Lord Elgin and purchased by the Museum in 1816. Elgin’s actions have always been controversial, but his removal of the sculptures has spared them further damage from vandalism, weathering and the modern threat of atmospheric pollution. Sculptures that remained on the building have been removed and are now mostly in store in the Acropolis museum.”

official text on display in the British Museum for public view July 2005

Still, the British museum had to admit that not Athenian air pollution or vandalism over the centuries [4] could damage the Parthenon marbles but also its own restoration practices:

“In the 1930s some of the sculptures in London were controversially cleaned before being installed in the present gallery.”

official tex ton display  in the British Museum for public view July 2005

The announcement includes reference to the official website for those who wish to obtain a full account of this controversial cleaning process and other matters related to the Parthenon Marbles issue: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Athens is responding to this precondition by going ahead with the construction of the Acropolis museum to be located underneath the Acropolis being right now restored under the guidance of M. Korres. There have been many unfortunate delays in the construction of that museum, delays contributing towards missing the opportunity of the Olympic Games in 2004 as possibility to put the British government, Parliament and British Museum under pressure to return the stolen Parthenon marbles.

Whether or not the marbles will be returned, that is another matter. A court case dealing with this question of returning or not stolen cultural goods did not favor such a move in May 2005. The fear prevails that this would create precedence for many other countries demanding back what had been taken during times of conquest and the British Empire expanding. [5]

But aside from them being returned or not, there are many ways in which the British museum could give a truer recognition to the intrinsic value of the Parthenon marbles. Alecos Alavanos made already in 1994, the year of Merlina Mercouri’s death, the demand that the official texts used by the British Museum to explain the background of this collection and the various sculptures should also be made available in Greek language. To this should now be added after this July 2005 visitation to the British Museum that the texts on display for public view should be more truthful in their wordings and especially take care not to distort the story of Lord Elgin’s act of vandalism in order to give false legitimization to the acquisition, retrospectively speaking. That would curtail access to this invaluable culture heritage of Greece, Europe and the world. Such distortions never serve well as bridges to other civilizations. A museum ought not to be engaged in false legitimizations and thereby remain a prisoner of imperialist motives.

In that sense, it is sad to see that not merely the positioning of the British Museum, but also the continuous incompetence on the side of Greek government, in particular its Cultural Ministry, when it comes to demand the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece. But any real debate about their value and reasons for their return to Greece requires some further going arguments developed in anticipation of the need of museums to leave behind this imperial past so that they can face on the basis of cultural cooperation and consensus new needs when it comes to protecting and promoting cultural heritages.

From Imperial collections to using culture as ‘soft power’

After the bombings on July 7th, the UK is confronting the fact that Islamic and other communities in the midst of British society may work on different value principles and thereby end up isolating themselves from the rest of society. As this alienation can lead to such tensions that violent reactions can be translated by misguided fanatics into acts of hatred and terrorism, that problem needs to be addressed. Of interest is that this touches as well upon the role museums can play in furthering mutual understanding and in integrating minority cultures into the larger spectrum of Western Civilizations. They can serve as bridges between different cultures. This was the specific theme declared by ICOM for Museums Day May 18th 2005. If it is, therefore, the specific aim to further mutual understanding in order to give dignity and therefore self esteem to these minorities and their communities, then the museum must learn to practice another kind of recognition by allowing, among other things, different interpretation of collections of items and meanings stemming from these other cultures e.g. by hiring interpreters stemming from these minority cultures.

In the aftermaths to these attacks, Alan Riding’s article draws attention to a recent report issued by the Commission on „Delivering Shared Heritage” in London. [6] Here the role of museums is at stake. The report asks what museums can do in terms of helping these minorities to become more integrated into British society. The report states clearly that this is not merely a matter of police control, but has to be dealt with by cultural institutions like museums. They should give recognition to the cultural heritage of minorities living in the UK.

This possibility of giving recognition through opening up collections in the museum to show achievements of these minorities but also by employing them as permanent staff (guides but also specialists trained for purpose of giving interpretations of various cultures and their background) he calls the ’soft power’ of culture in order to fight terrorism. It is an interesting hypothesis and a good way to approach also the question how museums like the British Museum can get away from the negative image of housing merely Imperialist Collections and change into a progressive institution that does give active recognition to cultural diversity and cultural heritages existing in the UK.

Museums should after all serve the community at large and therefore reflect changes going on in the UK but also elsewhere due to immigration / migration and in general the movement of people when they begin to map their cultural spaces and legacies anew. It would mean not only for the British Museum, but for all museums the task to trace changing cultures as they have impacts upon our understanding of Western and other civilizations.


If there is any doubt about both the concept and mission of a particular museum, then the task to keep collections involves a lot of work and research. It needs also to have a legitimate basis if the museum is to continue providing the access people need if they are to understand their and other cultural heritages in a truthful context.

In view of history but also how modern societies are evolving, the keeping of cultural heritage must reflect these ongoing changes. Clearly traditional museums like the British Museum are challenged in their role.

Museums must find now a way how to manage a transition from the negative image of housing merely imperial collections to becoming ‘the soft power’ of culture. They can do so if they learn to give real recognition not to what is left of people having been suppressed and vanquished by civilizations that bulldozed over them but by emancipating those kept till now in unnoticed minority positions without articulation possibilities inside of museums.

Museums are still the cultural institutions recognized by society that they are best equipped to grant recognition to what contributes to man’s living process on this earth. As minorities themselves can utilize the energies they receive from such recognition, their cultures are sure to unfold and able to enrich other existing ones.

Altogether culture, cultural heritage and knowledge about man’s civilization as presented by museums can facilitate the integration process and make thereby possible the living together of people on this earth despite their different backgrounds, including various world conceptions, values and ways of doing things. As such museums can offer a huge service in preserving and promoting cultural heritage. They do this not merely according to their own standards and evaluation procedures, but in response to a highly critical audience and media aware of such a need for access to cultural heritages in the making.

Dr. Hatto Fischer


[1] See Gombrich, Story of the Arts

[2] One aim of the recent refurbishment was to introduce a sort of new inner space with a lot of light to offset exactly the greater impact of dreary British weather lasting over many months in the year, but such architectural solutions and twists do not suffice for the Mediterranean light has a different quality as any painter could explain. Furthermore, the Acropolis and its sculptures had the imprint of how conscious the Athenians were at that time of how to use the light e.g. the hole in the roof through which some light could reflect in the pool of water surrounding the statue of Athenina hovering in an otherwise darkened room. The mysticism linked to a display of light reflected on her face according to the time of the day meant already layers of light experiences throughout the day were crucial elements of the Greek experience then as it is still now. The sculptures were created with that light in mind. For the curvatures and negative spaces in the body of a sculpture meant a display of movement so that they became alive or fantastic replicas of ‘illuminated thought’ after the free standing sculpture had been invented by the Greeks of the Classical Age.

[3] Franz Fanon in ‘The Wretched of this Earth’ states at the outbreak of the war in Algiers that it is time to discard the Parthenon as symbol of Western Civilization. He implies that this monument alone dominated in all Western thinking and therefore a symbol of suppression of any other way of thinking used to different cultural reference points.

[4] see Zbiegniew Herbert, “The history of the Arcropolis” in his book entitled: A Barbarian comes into the Garden. In this essay he mentions who took what from the Acropolis with him during which century or time period e.g. Swedish officers simply chopped off heads from the sculptures because they could not transport with them the entire piece.

[5] The Sueddeutsche Zeitung reports, for instance, that a Turkish lawyer is undertaking efforts that the British Museum returns the pieces of the Mausoleum in Halikarnassos (3.4. September 2005)

[6] Alan Riding, “Culture’s subtle role in fighting terrorism”, International Herald Tribune, August 4, 2005


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