Bring Them Back

It is important to realize that these are not just issues for a visitor, for questions of pasts, of societal ownership of the past, and of how to tell “the story” of a particular history also remain very present concerns for Greek citizens.  For example, consider the current controversy over the “Elgin Marbles”—the early nineteenth-century archeological finds from Athens.

Click here to consider how the British Museum (where they reside today) describes these artifacts.

But what are ancient Greek sculptures and architectural fragments doing in the British Museum, you ask?  The British Parliament bought them from Lord Elgin in 1816, after he had them removed from the Parthenon, in Athens, and collected them, all of which happened prior to the founding of the modern Greek nation-state, back when Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. (The Greek War of Independence, after several centuries under Ottoman rule, was fought between 1821 and 1830, and northern Greece was united with the south only in the early 20th Century).  But now there is much debate over where and to whom the “past” thought to be represented by these sculptures belongs.  In fact, in Greece there’s a campaign being waged in the attempt to “bring the marbles back” and exhibit them in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.  See the following “Bring Them Back” parody, where there is a scenario in which the tables are turned…

What would we say if someone from Greece took the clock from Big Ben–a key item in modern British identity–“for safe keeping”? (Did you know that in the US there is a 1990 Federal Law–the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA]–to govern the return of certain Native American artifacts to Native American groups? Learn more here.) Perhaps it now makes sense that calling these sculptures from the Parthenon the “Elgin Marbles” already implies a claim of ownership; for others, they are more accurately known as the Parthenon Marbles.

Clearly, the past is far more complicated than it might first appear. But regardless on which side of this debate you find yourself, there is a shared, looming notion of “ancient Greece” that is thought to be important and belong to the entire world.  Of course, the belonging has always been contingent on things like empire, power, excavation, colonization, and money (i.e., who can afford to travel across the world to go digging?).  How do modern Greeks feel about the ancient past that they simultaneously create and inherit?