post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking
Reading ‘Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage’ by James Cuno, Princeton University Press, 2008.
Cuno opens with the case of the Parthenon marbles, and is firmly of the view that they should stay where they are. He notes that there was some kind of legal instrument that gave Elgin permission to remove the marbles, but that it has been lost. He covers this off with “He did so, we are told, with permission from the governing Ottoman authorities.” (p.ix) That ‘we are told’s doing a fair bit of work here, eh. He then moves to the point that whatever the real status legally, the removal of the marbles would have been an obvious act – “they could hardly have been surreptitious” (p.ix) – not least because the backs were sawn off some of them, the implication being that this would have been highly noticeable. He notes that they “sailed slowly away” (p.x), and so implies without stating that anyone who cared to had plenty of opportunity to stop the marbles from being removed.
We then move on to the case for, basically, not seeing the present-day Greek state as continuous with the political entity that existed at the time of the removal-acquisition. I suppose in a scholarly work I would expect more of an up-front laying out of what was going to be argued (I do appreciate that this is the preface) and why… Wikipedia tells us
This period of Ottoman rule in Greece, lasting from the mid-15th century until the successful Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1821 and the proclamation of the First Hellenic Republic in 1822
So the beginning of Greece as an independent nation we can put at 1821/2, and Cuno goes on to note that ‘A first attempt at an independent Greek government failed when its president was assassinated in 1831’ (p.x). Cuno doesn’t provide the year of the marbles’ removal –
Apparently it was 1816 that the marbles were sold to Britain. I’m getting bogged down here and I feel like it’s important to avoid trying to do history here (what does that even mean? I have a degree in art history, I’ve probably even written about this subject before) but yes, important points in this debate are:
– continuity of an owning entity
– how to reckon legitimate ownership – finders keepers clearly does not persuade a lot of people at this stage
– caring ie. throughout this scene-setting I think Cuno is implying that Elgin really cared, in a way that is proper to the significance of the sculptures, and that a lack of care was shown towards them by basically all preceding generations in the place of the Greek nation.
And that it’s nakedly a state-building project to assert concern about the sculptures at this late stage – but I think if you’re going to hold one state to a standard like this, you should also consider the case for holding the other involved state to that standard – that would be Britain, but I haven’t come across a consideration along those lines so far in the book.
I’m not sure who wins if the stakes are showing who has had the most continuous form of existence of their nation state and is therefore in the best position to make claims about the past and the ownership of its vestiges. I think continuity depends on where you are and where you’re considering from – I keep thinking of this question of Irish home rule and that 1922 is the date from which we can assert the continuous existence of the United Kingdom in the form in which it exists today. I don’t think the British (British?) relationship with Ireland is given much consideration in England – I know, I know, prove it, but I’m not sure that other people would agree with an idea about continuity since 1922, but isn’t showing a certain amount of indifference a way of asserting that something is not very important to you (to Britain) and a way of trying to downplay it? So Britain downplays the history of Ireland and the British role in torturing its people for quite so long as it did, and we get to be an enduring national entity whose continuity is not seen as troubled by the secession of almost an entire country. Obviously I don’t really have the expertise for this but I’m just thinking that there are some implications going on here that are not being plainly laid out, and if we expand the story and include levelling the same queries at Britain then it’s not that straightforward. Alright, it’s not as though London was changing hands, as happened in Athens, but it seems to me that renegotiating the relationship to the past (as a nation) is a reasonable thing for a nation to do, and surely something that Britain has also been involved in doing?
And just so I don’t forget, is the stance of ‘we cared about this first therefore we win’ really one that’s worth privileging quite so much? Especially when it turns into, ‘we cared about this stuff so much that we took it off you’?
I think there is something about valuing… but attention should be focussed on what future actions could bring about, what their possibilities are.