A Talk: With Neil MacGregor

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Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon, circa 430 B.C. — Photo: Elgin Collection, British Museum

In London last week I sat down for a conversation with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. Having just paid a visit to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, this seemed like a good time to talk with him about the Elgin Marbles, which the Greeks would like to have back, and why he believes they should stay where they are.

I’ll post this exchange in several parts over the next few days.

LACAYO: I’ll start with the most basic question. Why should the Elgins be here, in London, and not there, in Athens?

MacGREGOR: The sculptures of the Parthenon are part of two separate stories, two distinguishable stories. One is the story of architecture and sculpture in Athens. The other is the story of sculpture in the world. It’s very important that they be in both stories. As you cannot reconstruct the building and you cannot put the sculptures back on the building — roughly half the sculptures have been destroyed completely — you cannot restore the aesthetic whole. So the current arrangement is more or less the ideal one. That is, you can see about half of what survives in the context of an Athenian story, and the other half in the context of a world story.

LACAYO: The Greeks would say you can reconstitute the narrative of the frieze.

MacGREGOR: You can’t. About 30% of the frieze has been destroyed. We’re talking about fragments, fragments of what was a great work of art, but which is now a broken and partial work of art. You simply can’t reconstruct it.

LACAYO: Even if it’s true that the Trustees can’t be compelled legally to return the Elgins, why should the marbles not be returned anyway for moral reasons, as Yale University recently agreed to return the Machu Picchu silver to Peru

MacGREGOR: When Lord Elgin sold them [to the British government] in 1816 there was a parliamentary committee precisely on the question of the circumstances of the acquisition. Parliament was satisified — not easily satisfied; it was a very serious investigation — that the sculptures had been properly acquired by Elgin and that therefore it was proper for the British Museum to buy them. So I don’t think that there’s any legal or moral argument.

Indeed, if we’re going to talk about wider issues, it was only when the sculptures came to London that they became world “star” objects. You couldn’t see them close up on the Parthenon. And the ones that had fallen off the Parthenon had been damaged and were in poor condition. It was only when you could see them at eye height that it became clear that these were great things. Elgin removed them, and it was by taking them to the British Museum that they became, to the educated world of Europe, great things.

Athens, in 1816 — the building was really a ruin, conditions were very poor, Athens was difficult to get to. It was bringing the marbles to London that actually allowed the European educated world, French, German, Russian, Italian and British, to discover for the first time what great Greek sculpture was. And this is the purpose of a museum like this — to bring things not previously appreciated for their proper worth, and put them in the context of other things from around the world.

LACAYO: As you know there were uncertainties about the firman, the document issued by the Ottoman authroties that provided the legal basis for Elgin to remove the marbles that he took. No one in that parliamentary committee in 1816 actually saw the firman. All they had was an Italian translation. The original is now lost, and to this day we don’t now how accurate the Italian translation was. And even if we accept that the Italian version was accurate, there’s also a question as to whether Elgin had greatly overstepped what the language of the firman authorized him or his agents to do. Given all this somewhat unstable documentary evidence, do you do still feel that the British Museum has a strong legal claim?

MacGREGOR: There is no legal system in Europe that would challenge the legal title. Because it’s impossible to sort out what the legalities of over 200 years ago were. We also know that this [the removal of the marbles] was happening absolutely in public. And Elgin was accompanied by an official of the sultan of the Porte of Constantinople, a man of a high rank — the voivode. I think it’s perfectly clear that Elgin couldn’t remove things without the consent of the voivode. Those consents might have gone beyond the terms of the firman, whatever those were, but this was done very publicly, in consultation with the public authorities of the day. So it is very difficult to argue that what he did was beyond the authority granted by Constantinople in one form or another.