As the Vatican Museums become the latest collection to return Parthenon marbles to Athens, the British Museum continues to give short shrift to Greece’s calls for repatriation.
By Catharine Titi
One of the most surprising claims the British Museum makes when refusing this repatriation is that the marbles are better off divided between two museums.
According to this argument, there is ‘a positive advantage and public benefit’ in the division: the Acropolis Museum allows us to view these glories of ancient Greece in the context of Athenian history and the British Museum in the context of world history.
In recent comments on the negotiations with the Greek government, the British Museum persists in this idea of sharing the marbles between London and Athens. But is the argument valid, or is the division an irreconcilable cultural schism falsely paraded as virtuous?
Although my new book, The Parthenon Marbles and International Law, focuses on the legal rather than the ethical or aesthetic grounds that favour the marbles’ return, it is difficult to ignore such arguments held with apparent conviction. Surely, if it is so important – and beneficial to the public – to divide the Parthenon marbles between two museums, should we not also seek to divide other treasures?
We are all fans of world museums, such as the British Museum and the Louvre. Who does not, for example, enjoy a visit to the Parisian institution where one can stroll from the Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo to a Botticelli fresco, and from Egyptian funerary art to the treasures of French Romanticism, all in the same afternoon? This is not in question.
Of course, world museums too can become enmeshed in scandals, and not all treasures in their collections are uncontested. Last year, New York investigators seized and repatriated looted antiquities previously held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in France, the former president-director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, was charged in connection with a probe into antiquities trafficking.
Yet most objects in museum collections, while still removed from their original context, are not divided in the way the Parthenon marbles are. For its part, the British Museum argues that this division is not unique, pointing out that cultural objects such as medieval and renaissance altarpieces have been divided and distributed to museums around the world.
The case of the Melun Diptych
Certainly, altarpiece panels have sometimes been dispersed across various collections: Raphael’s Colonna Altarpiece, which was made for a convent in Perugia but was then dismantled and sold by the nuns to cope with financial difficulties; Duccio’s Maestà in Siena, an altarpiece disassembled in 1771 by its guardians; or the Melun Diptych, a work of majestic beauty and brilliant colours painted by Jean Fouquet.
This diptych, famous for its Virgin, thought to be a portrait of Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress who died shortly before the painting was made, is yet another fragmented altarpiece that was dismantled in order to be sold. It is not surprising that when the panels of such altarpieces are brought together on the occasion of an exhibition, their temporary reunification is said to create a sensation.
It must be stressed that the division of these altarpiece panels took place in circumstances far removed from those of the acquisition of the Parthenon marbles.
At any rate, is it reasonable to equate the dispersion of altarpiece panels, movable objects, with the dismantling of the Parthenon, a building that was stripped of part of its structure?
Division of Parthenon Marbles is a fragmentation of a monument
The division of the Parthenon marbles between two museums can only be compared to the fragmentation of a monument. Can we imagine the Sistine Chapel split in two? Michelangelo’s famous fresco The Creation of Adam divided, God’s outstretched hand separated from that of Adam to whom it gives life?
Yet this is what happened with the Parthenon: the narratives of its frieze, metopes and pediments have been interrupted, and individual statues have been torn apart.
Let us take the example of Poseidon from the western pediment: the front and middle part of his torso is in Athens, but the back and upper part of his torso, including his shoulders and collarbones, is in London.
Does this division convey ‘a positive advantage and public benefit’ because one part Poseidon’s body can be contemplated in the context of Athenian history and another part of his body can be viewed against the backdrop of world history?
Quatremère de Quincy said it at the end of the 18th century when he opposed the despoiling of Italian art: ‘To divide is to destroy.’
States, including the United Kingdom, pass laws to protect the integrity of monuments and other public buildings. This integrity, which allows the appreciation of a monument as a whole, is one of the conditions for a property to be on UNESCO’s World Heritage List under the World Heritage Convention.
This same principle of integrity was recognized by the International Court of Justice in the Temple of Preah Vihear case in 1962. In that dispute, which opposed Cambodia and Thailand, the Court ruled that Thailand had an obligation to return to Cambodia the objects and parts of the temple that it had removed when it occupied the territory.
The Court thus expressed the principle that the state never loses its sovereign title to public monuments and the objects and parts that belong to them.
It is true that for the time being the marbles cannot be returned to the Parthenon itself. In the interests of conservation, were the British Museum to repatriate the marbles tomorrow, they would be transferred to the Acropolis Museum to join their other surviving half. This would allow for the most complete appreciation of the Parthenon’s frieze, metopes, and pediments.
Divide the marbles between two museums, keeping half the sculptures in the British Museum separated from their history and adjoining fragments, or place the whole in the Acropolis Museum under the shadow of the Parthenon?
As the famous British historian and archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill wrote in a letter to The Times, ‘there is no choice’. To divide is to destroy.
Catharine Titi is a Research Associate Professor at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).