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British museum still refusing to return Parthenon pieces

22 December 2009 3 Comments
Twenty six years after the first official request by the Greek State for the return of its Parthenon, or Elgin Marbles, the British Museum is still claiming ownership and refuses to hand them over. Sofia Belegrinou investigates.


London's British Museum is still refusing to repatriate the Elgin Marbles back to Greece due to concerns over the capital's air pollution. Image: Andrew Dunn.

The Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions, friezes and architectural fragments that originally formed parts of the Parthenon, a symbol of ancient Greek democracy, and other significant buildings on the Acropolis of Athens.

According to the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the artefacts were controversially removed between 1801 and 1804 by Lord Elgin, then-British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. They were spirited to Britain where they were eventually purchased in 1816 by the British Government and put on display at London’s British Museum where they remain to this day. The Museum originally vowed to give them ”an honorable shelter” and keep them ”safe from ignorance and degradation,” as quoted in the New York Times in 2002.

The British museum argues that some artefacts symbolise the cultural heritage of all humankind through the ages in the world’s museums and private collections. The Parthenon Marbles are part of this international cultural heritage, despite their significance to Greece. Yet the debate surrounding the Marbles is not just about ownership. It has become further complicated by the question of the levels of air pollution in Athens and how this environmental factor will affect the condition of the marble pieces if repatriated back to Greece.

The Acropolis Restoration Project is a highly significant project worldwide. The Greek team uses a technique of combining infrared and ultraviolet beams to avoid a yellowing effect of lasers on the marble. Commencing in 1983, the project is still only partially completed with the main part of the Acropolis and the Temple of Athena remaining. In a report, Evangelos Venizelos, the former Greek Minister of Culture mentions that the main aims of the program are structural and surface maintenance and the protection and re-orientation of old restored sculptures.

According to Theodore Skoulikidis, the chief chemical engineer of the Acropolis Restoration Project, there are six main types of limestone and marble deterioration caused by atmospheric pollution. These include: water freezing in the fissures causing stone cracking due to expansion; erosion caused by suspended particles; biodeterioration; marble cracking due to the corrosion of steel clamps and junctions introduced either during construction or restoration; attack by acids contained in the atmosphere combined with rain water; and attack by SO2 that in absence of rain water creates a gypsum formation (sulfation) on the stone surface.

Maria Ioannidou, the archaeologist heading the Acropolis Restoration Project says that such deterioration is severe.

“The effect of pollution is very serious. It destroys sculptural, structural and painting detail.”
Apart from other causes of deterioration, the Parthenon Marbles have suffered heavily from recent attacks of atmospheric pollution hanging over the Greek capital. The pillars, pediments and lintels remain exposed and continue to deteriorate in Athens’s smog. As a result, acid rain eats away at the marble layers due to the presence of sulphur and nitrogen oxides.

The US Geological Survey confirms that the sculptures receive little rain or rain runoff and seem to be formed by sulfur dioxide uptake, in the presence of moisture, on the stone surface. Subsequent conversion of the sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid results in the formation of a layer of gypsum on the marble surface.

Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary told the BBC in 2004, “Athens might no longer be a war zone but atmospheric pollution had already caused serious damage to many of the Marbles remaining there.”

In fact, other parts of the Parthenon have already been moved to the New Acropolis Museum in order to preserve and protect them.

Monument reconstructor Konstantinos Boletis emphasises that the corrosion of the Marbles due to air pollution has been limited since the 80s when the Greek government implemented a range of measures to combat the issue: restriction and relocation of industrial activities; restriction of road traffic; extensive pedestrian areas; promotion of public transport and fuel quality improvement for industry and households were the main provisions.

Ian Swindale is a British teacher who in 1997, lead an online student campaign on this subject. He says that the British Museum argument about air pollution is quite obsolete.

“I suspect that the British Museum doesn’t want to return the Parthenon Marbles because it would create a vacuum in the British Museum’s collection of worldwide artefacts,” he said.

Undoubtedly, the case of marbles is more complex than it seems. Based on a recent report about CO2 emissions conducted by Greenpeace, in 2008, the Greek national electricity provider emitted roughly 52 million tons of dioxide. In other words, it exceeded almost 18% of the total accepted limit based on the National Plan of Dioxide Emission, issued after the Kyoto protocol on the confrontation of climate change.

Further research conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confirms that “although efforts have been made to raise public awareness of environmental issues, lack of familiarity with the concept of sustainable development still constitutes a handicap for policy implementation.” The intensity of air pollution emissions is very high, overall; emissions of SOx, NOx and CO2 per unit of GDP exceed the OECD Europe averages by 100%, 42% and 38%, respectively.

Consequently, the intensity of air pollution emissions is still very high.

“Pollution issue is quite embarrassing considering about the fines Greek Government has to pay in order to save humanity’s cultural heritage,” says Greek journalist Sofia Iordanidou.

Gradually, Greece will observe the emission limits defined by the EU standards. In the meantime, the country has applied to the European Commission to delay compliance with EU air quality limits on this particulate matter from 2005 until mid-2011. Unfortunately, there is no specific plan.

Remarkably, between 1990 and 2006, all member states – except Greece – reported a decrease in emissions.

On the other hand, Swindale’s 1997 student online campaign states, “The Marbles suffered far more damage from their lengthy stay in the heavily polluted and humid atmosphere of London than they would have done if they had stayed in Athens where pollution is only a very decent phenomenon recently.”

Equally, Anna Panayotarea, a professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki claims that there has been no risk of air pollution since the mid 90’s, after the launch of several measures to improve energy efficiency in power generation and industry.

“I believe that the biggest corrosion of the marbles was not due to the polluted air of Athens but when Elgin removed the sculptures. In his effort to take as much as he could, sawing some of the sculptures in half to reduce their weight and ship them easily to England.”

However, as long ago as 1986, during her speech in Oxford Union, then-Greek Minister of Culture Melina Merkouri who was heading up the official international campaign for the return of Parthenon Marbles, confirmed that the Greek Government has never intended on exposing the repatriated piece in the open air.

If the Elgin marble sculptures are returned to Greece, they are to be housed in today’s new Acropolis museum.

Acropolis site supervisor Alexandros Mantis insists on the replacement of 17 original sculpted plaques with replicas because they can no longer endure atmospheric conditions. Mantis insists that keeping the marbles in a safe place will strengthen Greece’s case for the repatriation of the Marbles from London in a brand new and impressive museum which is located some miles away from the Acropolis.

“There can no longer be any question about where or how the marbles should be displayed,” says Eleni Cubitt, secretary of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

Speaking earlier this year at the opening ceremony of new Acropolis museum in Athens, the current Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras said, “The main British argument against was that there was no deserving museum in Greece to house the marbles. Now, this argument is off the table.”

GEJI reporter Sofia Belegrinou prepared this report while on exchange at UTS from Aritstotle University.

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