The culture war between antiquities-importing countries and those whose soils harbor archaeological treasures has flared up again. This time, the battle isn't over recently looted artifacts returned by a chastened American museum to their country of origin. Instead, it is over the June opening of Athens' New Acropolis Museum (NAM), which, in addition to housing an eye-boggling cache of art and artifacts found on the Acropolis, was built with the wishful premise of someday housing what the British refer to as the "Elgin Marbles." These are the late fifth-century sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th-century by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, and acquired by the British Museum in 1816.
Although there are certainly entrenched political and legal obstacles to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece -- chief among them, the British Museum's claim of rightful ownership -- the elegant, state-of-the-art concrete and glass-walled NAM, designed by Swiss-born New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi has put to bed long-standing concerns over Greece's ability to safeguard and exhibit the stones, should they ever return to its shores. Despite its persistent refusal to consider the restitution, even the British Museum seems to have tacitly acknowledged the suitability of the NAM by offering the marginally sincere three-month loan of the marbles in exchange for a renunciation of Greece's ownership claims. (The Greeks ridiculed and rejected the offer.) But amid all this posturing, does the construction of the NAM signal the beginning of a shift in the repatriation debate, which might affect museums around the world that are caught in similar conflicts over contested objects? Although not all archaeological source countries have the resources to build such an unimpeachable museum, the issue of restitution for works of art might increasingly be decided less on whether these source countries can legally reclaim their own antiquities -- but whether, ethically, they should.
The Elgin Marbles represent approximately half of the surviving works of art from the Parthenon. Almost from the time they arrived in England, the Greeks and the British have been engaged in a painful, imperial-era playground spat that goes something like this: "You took them from us. Give them back." To which the British have replied, "No, they're ours. The Ottoman Empire said we could have them." Unable or unwilling to resolve the dispute by mutual agreement, the merits of the case have been loudly debated for nearly two centuries in the court of public opinion. Romantic poet Lord Byron launched the first salvo with his immensely popular narrative poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which was published almost simultaneous to the British ownership claim:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
In 1982, when the Acropolis was first proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Greek superstar Melina Mercouri, an actress and politician, made an impassioned plea for the return of the marbles. Two years later, the Greek government made a formal complaint to UNESCO for restitution of the stones from Britain, with the meager result of a repeated and unactionable suggestion that the two sides come to an unspecified "amicable settlement." Despite the fact that the Greeks have maintained their noisy bereaved posture, for whatever reason -- either the lack of an appropriate venue to hear a case or uncertainty about the outcome -- they have never pursued their grievance in a court of law. Instead, they built the NAM to make their architectural, aesthetic, and ethical argument for reuniting the Elgin Marbles with the other elements of Parthenon statuary that have remained in Greek hands.
In fact, the third-floor Parthenon gallery, which was designed for this reunion, is the museum's pièce de résistance. Rotated 23 degrees on its axis and cantilevered over the lower two floors, it is in the same orientation as the Parthenon, which is visible a short distance away. Installed around an internal wall and bathed in the natural light of Athens is the 525-foot-long, low-relief Parthenon frieze, depicting a mystical Panathenian procession. Mounted between metal columns just outside the frieze are the surviving metopes -- individual relief sculptures -- which were designed for the exterior facade of the Parthenon. At either end are statues that were mounted in the triangular pediments of the structure. For the first time since they were last seen together on the Parthenon before it was destroyed by an explosion of gunpowder in 1687, these sculptures -- half of which are actually white plaster casts of the sculptures housed in the British Museum -- are installed in more-or-less their correct relationship, allowing a glimpse of something approaching the original splendor of the architect's vision. What the NAM provides -- even with reproductions installed alongside the honey-toned authentic stones -- is the conviction that the artistic integrity of the ensemble matters. Reuniting this site-specific sculpture in the location where it was intended to be seen adds up to more than a sum of its parts, and more than having the sculpture divided in two locations.
But is a state-of-the-art museum in a historic location really enough to turn the tide in a repatriation debate that has raged for nearly 200 years? The Egyptian government, which plans to build an even larger project in Giza within two kilometers of the pyramids, would like to think so. If and when it is able to open the Grand Egyptian Museum, it undoubtedly would like to see "the beautiful Berlin woman" -- as German tourist agencies like to call the polychrome limestone bust of Nefertiti that went to Germany as part of an early 20th-century partage agreement to divide the spoils of an archaeological dig in Egypt that was funded by the German entrepreneur James Simon -- return home to take up residence in its galleries. In a theoretical paper, Kurt G. Siehr, retired senior research fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law, argued that the only defensible delay in returning the bust of Nefertiti from the Altes Museum in Berlin is that it "will not be exhibited in Egypt and diligently preserved," a defense that would crumble with a state-of-the-art museum in a major Egyptian tourist mecca. The Egyptians are also undoubtedly reserving a spot for the Rosetta Stone -- a fragment of inscribed stone dating from 196 B.C. with inscriptions in three languages, including Greek, which allowed English physician Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decode the lost language of the hieroglyphics in the early 19th century.
All of this talk raises the hackles of a long list of prominent museum directors, historians, and legal scholars. John Henry Merryman, a professor emeritus of Stanford Law School and the grandfather of cultural property law in the United States, in 1985 published what is accepted by many as a definitive analysis of the issues involved in a hypothetical restitution case of the Elgin Marbles, arguing that the Greeks would have no legal, moral, or ethical case for the return of the marbles. The arrival of the NAM, in Merryman's view, does nothing to change this. He reasons that because the marbles could never be restored to their original setting on the Parthenon, there is no value in moving them from one museum to another, particularly because they are easily accessible, well cared for, and on display free of charge at the British Museum.
Then there is the very thorny issue of whether modern nation-states can justifiably claim exclusive cultural rights to an ancient object created by a defunct civilization whose influence has spread far beyond its borders, a question raised by James Cuno, the highly respected director of the Art Institute of Chicago, who argues in defense of the benefits of the universal museum. Modern Greece is certainly not the same entity as ancient Athens, in the same way that modern Egypt is certainly not the land of the pharaohs. His dissection of the cultural history of the Rosetta Stone squarely argues against the importance of the object as an Egyptian relic, and in favor of it as a touchstone of European intellectual history, justifying its placement in the British Museum. In fact, as Cuno sees it, history is often cherry-picked to serve political ends, and cultural objects are used as pawns in political, nationalistic games. He argues that universal museums -- like the British Museum or the Louvre, which house objects representing cultures spanning broad expanses of time and geography, which are visited by millions of people every year -- promote tolerance and act as a hedge against the expedient and sometimes dangerous divisiveness of excessive nationalism. One need look no further than the 2001 destruction of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddha statues to fear for the safety of cultural treasures in ideological conflicts. On the other hand, the universal museums Cuno so eloquently defends certainly did not build these great collections in ways that would now be seen as entirely beyond reproach.
It is safe to say that not all objects or restitution cases are created equal, no matter what architecture is created to house them. By today's standards, there is a strong case to be made for the return of Nefertiti to her home in Egypt, but a weak one for the return of the Rosetta Stone. Artistic integrity is a powerful argument for the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles, but only if the Greeks provide an accurate intellectual history, access for the public and scholars, and a superlative standard of care. (They've gotten off to a bad start in the intellectual integrity department by deleting -- supposedly under pressure from the Greek Orthodox Church -- scenes from an NAM-commissioned animated film of Christian priests whacking the figures of the gods off the metopes when the Parthenon was converted to a Byzantine church.) And all of these cases differ substantially from more recent instances that involve illegal excavation and trafficking, such as that of the Lydian Hoard, which was returned to a small museum in Turkey from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was acquired under dubious circumstances and subsequently stolen, possibly by the Turkish museum's director.
No matter how these more historical claims are resolved, it is fairly certain is that the age of building antiquities collections for universal museums through unbridled art market acquisition -- or archaeological partage -- is probably over, particularly in the United States. The successful claw-back of numerous antiquities from some of the most respected American museums, as well as the ongoing prosecution of former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True, has made museums rightfully cautious. The necessity of abiding by the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the provisions of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects have fostered U.S. Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines so restrictive as to make anything but the most exceptional acquisitions impossible. On the other hand, these same museums might begin to see extraordinary objects like the Chimera di Arezzo , which is currently on loan to the Getty Villa from the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, come their way in compensation for works they have forfeited, thus opening a new age of museum cooperation and shared stewardship, something that certainly supports a goal of safeguarding the public trust.
In the meantime, while awaiting an "amicable settlement" with the British, the Greeks have a spectacular new architectural showcase filled with magnificent works of art, and if recent press coverage is any gauge, a tide of public opinion that seems to be rising in favor of the return of the Elgin Marbles. The British have possession of the marbles, though their laughable loan offer might actually signal that there is a very, very small crack in the door and that someday, despite their protestations, they might indeed allow the sculptures to return to Athens. If they do, you can be sure that museum directors and cultural ministers around the world will sit up and take notice.