Reversing Elginism

1414030140000 » Tagged as: Museums , Tagged as: Elginism , Tagged as: Cultural Heritage

Reversing Elginism -


the paper I presented today at the SAARC Conference in Colombo on Oct. 23rd, 2014. Curating Culture Present and Future.


Some calm spectator, as he takes his view,

In silent indignation mix'd with grief,

Admires the plunder, but abhors the thief.

Oh, loath'd in life, nor pardon'd in the dust,

May hate pursue his sacrilegious lust!

Link'd with the fool that fired the Ephesian dome,

Shall vengeance follow far beyond the tomb,

And Eratostratus and Elgin shine

In many a branding page and burning line;

Alike reserved for aye to stand accursed,

Perchance the second blacker than the first.1

This is from the poem, 'The Curse of Minerva' written by George Gordon Byron, on March 17th, 1811, when he visited Athens, and saw the criminal act committed by a man named Thomas Bruce, who called himself Lord Elgin. But Byron considered him a darker character than Eratostratus, who had set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus, expecting to perpetuate his name by this act. But Elgin sold his plunder for a pot of filthy lucre.





"An act of cultural vandalism. A term coined by the destructive actions of Lord Elgin who illegally transported the Parthenon Marbles from Greece to London between 1801 and 1805. Now also applies to other cultural objects. Usually refers to artefacts taken from poorer nations to richer ones" is how Elginism is described at


I selected the Parthenon Marbles and Elgin's crime, because it is the most talked about issue on the theft or plunder of objects of cultural heritage and also because of the controversy of returning such objects from where they are held now to their countries of origin. It can also be considered as a typical example of this controversy and the sad tale of this story could be considered the story of almost all cultural objects held in the museums of the west.


The use of the word Elginism has been traced back to 1850, though the term Elginism is less than two centuries old, the theft of items of high cultural and heritage value has gone on for the past several thousand years, continues today and will continue tomorrow.


Elginism, has been called the despicable act said to have begun 200 years ago. Nayanjot Lahiri quotes from a letter written by George Curzon's private secretary to John Marshall on 17th March 1904 " gross was the manner and scale of this removal that 'Elginism' has since become a general metaphor for the plunder of cultural treasures."


The struggle to reverse Elginism has continued for many years. The Greeks are not giving up their claim, and the British museum is not ready to give up their valuable collection. The most recent action was by Dr. Luca Lo Sicco. He started on his bike in front of the British Museum on July 1st, 2014 and arrived in front of the steps of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, on August 7th. It was supported by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.


“I believe that the return of the Parthenon Marbles is a moral and historical obligation for all of us. We can shake things up in Europe” Lo Sicco said. If they achieve their aim, it will shake up not only Europe, but most other so-called developed countries.


In 1799 Thomas Bruce was appointed ambassador to Constantinople and thus began the destruction of a 2 millennia old heritage.


In the words of the Greek Cultural Ministry, "..serious damage was caused in the early nineteenth century by Lord Elgin, who looted much of the temple's sculptural decoration and sold it to the British Museum." According to the British Museum, the frieze was acquired "in 1816 following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions."


Hugh Hammersley, had taken part in the debate in the British Parliament that had to decide whether the Elgin Marbles should be purchased and displayed in the British Museum. He proposed an amendment to the House of Commons resolution that stated: "Great Britain holds these Marbles only in trust till they are demanded by the present, or any future possessors of the city of Athens; and upon such demand, engages without question or negotiation, to restore them, as far as can be effected, to the places from where they were taken, and that they shall be in the mean time carefully preserved in the British Museum.”2 The British Parliament was prepared to pay £ 35,000 to Elgin for the marbles, probably stolen property, because there is no documentary evidence that Elgin had permission to remove them from Greece. The amendment was defeated, but Hammersley went on to say, "It was to be regretted that the government had not restrained this act of spoliation; but, as it had been committed, we should exert ourselves to wipe off the stain, and not place in our museum a monument of our disgrace, but at once return the bribe which our ambassador had received, to his own dishonour."3 This statement applies to all treasures plundered by invading forces all over the world, some of them perhaps more valuable and irreplaceable than even these marbles.


Since the British museum boasts that over two million objects from their collection are available for study online, they could easily return the marbles now. They do not have any moral or legal right to hold the frieze or other treasures similarly plundered against the wishes of the real claimants. Elgin sold the marbles to the museum because he needed the money, and we have to accept the marbles have been preserved and on display because of this action by the British parliament. If they had not purchased these artefacts, the Parthenon marbles could have ended up in a private collection or destroyed due to neglect.


The theme of this conference today is the "development of museums...with the aim of discussing some of the challenges that the museums of South Asia are facing." One of the major challenges, I believe, is getting back what belongs to us. But then, we have to decide about what really belongs to us, and who we mean, when we use the term us.


The UNESCO Convention 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, opens the door for Greece, if the British would agree. Article 13, b says, "to ensure that their competent services co-operate in facilitating the earliest possible restitution of illicitly exported cultural property to its rightful owner;"


The irony with the British is that in the 70s a movement called STOP, Stop Taking Our Past, had been formed, which has been revived in 2012 as nSTOP, new Stop Taking Our Past. They are targeting the 'nighthawks' those who dig up cultural treasures in the night using metal detectors. And some of these treasures are smuggled out of the country. If these people are so concerned and value their own past so much, then they should also respect such concerns of people in other countries, who were unable to stop the British from taking away their past.


Sad to say that probably there had been a British Elgin in Sri Lanka too. A moonstone of the Anuradhapura period was auctioned off last year for £ 553,250 in London4. The moonstone was from "Braknell" an early 20th century Tudor revival property in Sussex, which had been owned by William Murdoch Thyne, a civil engineer who had worked in Sri Lanka from 1915 - 1937. Bonhams website does not say if the moonstone had been taken by William Murdoch Thyne or his son, William Lindsay Thyne who was married to the daughter of a Sri Lankan planter.


Who owns heritage?


Who could really claim ownership for objects used or created by pre-historic man? Taking the Parthenon Marbles as an example, could the present government in Greece or the present day people living in Greece claim exclusive rights to sculptures created by Phidias and his team for the people who lived in Greece 2600 years ago? Shouldn't these objects belong to all mankind?


Then they could be kept in one specific safe location, but available for all mankind. Where such a space is located should not matter. But it does matter today, because we are all divided, we are all trying to shut ourselves behind manmade barriers, behind manmade identities filled with selfish, egoistic concepts.


One major problem we face in reversing Elginism is from people in power. Even if there is no documentary evidence Elgin had claimed he got permission from the Ottoman authorities who ruled over Athens at the time.


James Cuno, in his book 'Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage' says, "The original legal instrument has disappeared and is said to exist only in an Italian Elgin the right to draw, measure, and make plaster casts of the sculptures, and dig for others that might have been buried. It also allows for "some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures" to be taken away."5


Instead, he pulled down 247 feet length of marble from the Parthenon at Athens to be shipped to England. Other pieces are in six other museums. It was a sculptural frieze created in the 4th century B. C. showing the ancient festival Panathenaic procession in honour of goddess Athena, running for over 500 feet and a height of over 3 feet. Because the marble slabs were so heavy "Elgins agents sawed off the backs of the thickest slabs before loading them on to the ships" And it is this criminal that the British still call Lord Elgin!


It was easy for the Sultan to grant permission to take away whatever did not belong to him or his people. Even today, should a government or a political party in power have the authority to grant permission for the removal of any cultural objects?


The situation is made worse by the UNESCO convention in 1970,


"Article 4. ....for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:


(c) cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;

(d) cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;

(e) cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property. "6

Who is the state? Those who run the country, with or without the consent of the people, or is it the people? Who decides the competent authority, and who could agree on free exchange or gift or sell such property? I believe that this should be amended. No one should have the authority to grant permission to remove from the place of origin, for any reason, any object of cultural value to anyone.


The police arrest and persecute mothers when they sell their babies, but who is to persecute a government when they sell the heritage of the country they rule?


The convention also uses the term Cultural Patrimony of archaeological or ethnological material. (Article 9). Who decides the Patrimony, and wouldn't it have been more appropriate to call it Cultural matrimony, because it all belongs to Mother Earth. It is also easier to determine than patrimony!


James Cuno is in praise of 'Encyclopedic Museums'7 as different from National Museums, "it is precisely not an instrument of the has never known political boundaries but has always been dynamic and hybrid, formed through contact and exchange with diverse people."8 It sounds so correct and what a museum should be, but do we have any such encyclopedic museums which are not bound within political or economic boundaries? And where and how did the Chicago Arts Institute get all the exhibits? Is it any different from the way the British Museum acquired all the exhibits?


We do not have a right to claim ownership, mutilate or destroy any space or objects of our ancient cultures. No one should have a right to gift, sell, purchase, or resell any items of heritage value. No one should have the right to 'Deaccession' or sell off items in museums, for any reason. Robin Progrebin in The New York Times wrote, "...deaccessioning has become a dirty word", but David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum said "We should be constantly refining and upgrading. I’ve given the message to all the curators that I regard deaccessioning as a normal act, and I encourage them to reassess the collections constantly." 9 Today there is a need for a data base of all exhibits in the museums around the world, which would also discourage museums from purchasing stolen artefacts or selling them off.







Reversing Elginism


Elginism, which has really affected Asia, Africa and the Middle East more than any other country, has to be reversed, at least to some extent and what is more important would be to prevent any further occurrence of such crimes.


The Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore had reportedly purchased artefacts worth over $ 1 million from Subash Kapoor, which included, a bronze figure of Uma Parameshvari for $ 100,000, a Virgin Mary and Christ Child for $ 135,000. Last year Subash Kapoor was arrested by Homeland Security in the United States, for stealing objects of cultural value from India, Pakistan and Cambodia worth over $ 100,000. He was stealing them because there were buyers, even from reputed museums around the world.


Only a month ago, it was a victory for those fighting to reverse Elginism, when on September 5th, 2014, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, handed over a Cola era bronze Nataraja and a stone carving of Ardhanariswara to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a symbolic gesture. The Nataraja had been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for $ 5.1 million, and the Ardhanariswara by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for $ 280,979 from the dealer Subash Kapoor.


Canada is acting in a totally different manner. When India claimed the 12th century life size sculpture of a woman, in the possession of the Department of Canadian Heritage, they have asked India to prove that it was stolen from India and illegally exported. If anyone had really stolen it from Khajuraho, the thief would not have declared it for export, and there would never be any record with the Archaeological Survey of India.10 We faced the same situation last year when a moonstone said to be from Sri Lanka was auctioned in London for This is a totally different controversy than the Elgin marbles, though it is obvious that this statue would never have been a part of the Canadian cultural heritage.


According to media reports India too is acting in a different manner, when it comes to dealing with stolen artefacts found with Kapoor. News media reports claim that India has not shown any interest in claiming what belongs to India. A sculpture of Mahakoka Goddess, said to have been discovered by Cunningham, and later reported to have been stolen from the 'rightful owners', has ended up with Kapoor and now kept with the US Immigration and Customs. It raises several questions about how it could have been owned by an individual. The Norton Simon Museum also has a Mahakoka pillar.11


How they acquired is not known and if it the pillar discovered by Cunningham. Then the pillar found wit Kapoor could be another such pillar, and Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray explains, "it does seem to be an original, which either escaped Cunningham's notice in 1873 and was not moved from the site; or alternatively, Cunningham was not allowed to move the pillar by the local inhabitants who were worshipping it as a local deity and was later stolen from the family mentioned in the news report. ....Subsequent archaeological research at Bharhut has shown that there were other stupas in the area as also a network of four smaller sites that emerged around Bharhut."


It happened last year in London too, when the moonstone, which the auctioneer claimed as genuine was purchased by a collector for £ 553,250, even though it had been valued at only £ 30,00012 and a Sri Lanka expert had considered it a replica. If it was only a replica would any collector pay 18 times more for it, and eleven people bidding for it?13


Norton Simon Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has voluntarily returned Cambodian sculptures, when they realized they were stolen property. But the Denver Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art are refusing to return the Cambodian art objects saying there is no evidence the statues had been stolen, but there is no other way these items could have reached America. Their attitude is the same as that of Canada.


Demands for returning all cultural treasures to the country of origin could go viral. George Clooney, who starred in Monuments Men, first claimed that the Parthenon marbles shoudl be returned, and then on a visit to France, that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy. Where do we draw the line?


Even if we are to really reverse Elginism, is it practically possible to relocate all the fragile, delicate artefacts, find safe, suitable areas to place them and still be available for all humanity to see them, and also be available for generations to come?


There is also another proactive process which has begun and which should be admired and encouraged. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had returned eight works of art from 500 B.C. to the 19th century, not because Nigeria had requested them, but because the curator, Victoria Reed, had researched 300 objects by a 'benefactor' and realized that the museum had no legal right to retain them.


What was destroyed could never be recovered or restored. But what has been stolen could be restored to the rightful owners whether they were purchased or taken by force.



Victimless crime



Simon Mackezie and Tess Davis published a report in the British Journal of Criminology, on the trafficking of cultural treasures, titled, 'Temple Looting in Cambodia, Anatomy of a Statue Trafficking Network'.14 The study was on the trafficking of artefacts from source to market, with a four-stage network, (1) looter, (2) early-stage intermediary, (3) late-stage intermediary and (4) collector. These middlemen work with a Janus face, the dark side handling the illegal looters, and the clean face to the international market.


The National geographic published a report by Heather Pringle on illegal antiquities trade links with terrorism and violent crime.15 She says "a recent survey of 14,500 field archaeologists indicated that looters are at work in at least 103 countries worldwide." The collectors would consider this a 'victimless crime' even if they accepted it as a crime, which means there is no harm done. But there is a victim, the cultural heritage of a people.


One argument put forward by curators is that these artefacts would be better protected in their museums than in a third world country. But here too, who has the right to decide?


The priority should be to prevent any further acts of Elgin atrocities, and the illicit trade for these objects. Museums all over the world should discontinue the purchase of stolen or plundered objects of cultural value.


The return of the Nataraja was made possible because the man who smuggled it was arrested in Germany two years ago and extradited to India. The federal authorities in USA had seized stolen artefatcs worth over US$ 100 million from this man, Subhash Kapoor last year.


Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg, about the modern day theft, and sale of artefacts of immense national heritage value for most countries. And they are just the icebergs while all the thefts, plunder and collection for the past few centuries would form one huge continent of solid ice. Reversing Elginism has to begin from the earlier plunders, now openly displayed without any shame, in most rich countries.


This victimless crime is not only for theft. An example of how development always cause destruction is the railway network in India. Two hundred cartloads of stones had been removed from thirty-six Gupta period temples at Tigawa in Madya Pradesh, to be used for ballast on the new railway line. About one hundred miles of railway line connecting Lahore and Multan had used brick ballast from the buildings at Harappa.


An example of plundering the plunderer is the Rosetta Stone. The 2300 year stone with writing in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek in both Egyptian and Greek languages. It had been plundered by French soldiers from a place called Rosetta in Egypt, and when the French surrendered to the British they had to hand over all their valuable artefacts to the British who had the audacity to take them all and display in their new museum. The British stole many more items, not just small treasures, but huge monoliths like the bust of Ramases II weighing several tons. The "civilized" British had no compunction to desecrate a grave of a more civilized people who had lived over 3,500 years ago.


The plundering had continued and will continue.


We also have to stop deaccession, the permanent removal of an object from a museum collection, giving various excuses. BBC reported that in July 2014 a 4,000 year old limestone statue, which had been plundered from Egypt, was sold for $ 27 million, by the Northampton museum. The sale was carried out despite the protest by the Egyptian Ambassador who condemned it "as an abuse to the Egyptian archaeology and the cultural property...Sekhemka belongs to is not ethical that it will be sold for profit.. ".


It is not easy to understand the mind of man, when he could proudly and openly display stolen goods and continue to buy stolen property for display. All the ancient artefacts are stolen or smuggled out because there is a demand, because there is a market and there are museums and private collectors ready to pay big money.


That is why even now ISIS "is looting, destroying and illicitly trafficking antiquities out of Iraq and Syria. Rachel Martin talks with Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University

If there is no demand for stolen or smuggled goods, the artefacts found at ancient heritage sites will be safe." As reported in NPR on September 29th, 2014. It is all big money, where gamblers and drug dealers could easily launder their dirty money.


BBC reported on March 28th 2013, "Since the revolution in Egypt, large holes have been appearing in the ground close to places of archaeological significance, such as the Great Pyramids at Giza."16

"Archaeological theft is so profitable, drug smugglers along this remote stretch of border use the same routes to smuggle artifacts into the country." U S Homeland Security Investigations reported last year, that thieves removed thousands of items from archaeological sites in the area of Northern Mexico near Big Bend National Park.17


Coming back to our own moonstone, after the moonstone auction in London in April 2013, for Rs 100 million, another moonstone was stolen in May from a temple in Kabitigollawa two months later, as reported in the Dinamina on 5th June 2013. And the Daily Mirror reported a day earlier, on 4th June, about a tour guide arrested in an attempt to smuggle out valuable artefacts to the United States.


Robert Reinhold, wrote in the Penn Museum Expedition Magazine in the Summer 1973 issue, about 'Theft and Vandalism, An Archaeological Disaster'.18 He blames the archaeologists, museums and the mass media for giving so much publicity for new archaeological discoveries, and the value of the treasures discovered. The resultant demand for such treasures by museums, and by rich individuals has created a bull market and a worldwide clandestine traffic. "To supply this market looters are rapidly destroying much of the evidence from which archaeologists hope to piece together a record of the human past.....There are no easy answers, for the situation is a complex one with few clear-cut villains and heroes—even the archaeologists are not without fault......(there are) many conflicting and possibly irreconcilable forces—the legitimate needs of both scholars and museum curators, the inflationary economy, economic realities in poorer countries, and official corruption."


Reinhold, in his investigations for the New York Times, made the observation that in the past archaeologists were more interested in filling museums with what they discovered. But today they are working on problem solving, "on reconstructing the social, economic and political forces that prevailed in ancient times. Therefore, the archaeologist tends to view relics as clues to a puzzle and not primarily as art objects." He also quotes from Prof. Michael Coe of Yale, "Many archae­ological excavations are never written up—that is pure destruction, even worse than the looters do,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun to dig than to write—the glamor is all in the expeditions.”


Victimless crime is not all for theft. There is also destruction of heritage spaces and objects, by carelessness or unconcern, which often happens in the name of progress and development. An example of how development always cause destruction is the railway network in India. Two hundred cartloads of stones had been removed from thirty-six Gupta period temples at Tigawa in Madya Pradesh, to be used for ballast on the new railway line. About one hundred miles of railway line connecting Lahore and Multan had used brick ballast from the buildings at Harappa.

It has happened and is happening in our country too, using heavy earthmoving equipment in excavation and restoration of heritage sites, for development and for tourist promotion.




Digital museum


The need to stop such plunder and destruction had been realized for a long time, and more and more governments and non-governmental organizations are trying to reclaim their heritage and to stop the continuing Elginism around the world.


Digital technology has opened the door for us to solve this problem, so the museums could return the objects to the rightful owners, and still retain the objects and share it with the whole world. Since the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone are some of the most talked about objects of plunder, and since the British museum boasts that over two million objects from their collection are available to study online, they do not have to hold on to stolen property. They do not have a moral or legal right to hold the real objects in their museums, or justify their action by claiming that it is seen by a world audience and actively studied and researched.


Let us look forward to the day we could walk through any museum anywhere in the world, from our own home on our own time. Let us use the available technology to make it possible. It would help us to really see, study, and learn from what we see, taking our own time about it, while it would also help us to compare these artefacts which are found spread around the world, from different times, different cultures.


We should be patient, till it becomes affordable for all museums to go on-line, to offer the facility of virtual museums accessible by all from anywhere. Googleartproject is offering the virtual museum, where with the touchpad or the curser keys, we can walk around the museum, spend as much time as we want, at each object. Then the artefacts could be preserved under better conditions, and be safer from vandals and thieves. And we could visit the museums, any time of day and night, at our own phase and whenever time permitted.


When all cultural heritage material becomes available for all humanity, anywhere at any time, the monetary value of such objects would go down, and the middlemen and traders will not be interested in trying to sell them any longer, people will not try to launder their money by purchasing such objects, and museums will not be able to use such objects to market themselves.


It is also time for all the museums around the world to make digital records for their own display and return the items they have, to the countries from where they were plundered.






2William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, Oxford University Press (1983), p. 261

3Vrettos, Theodore, The Elgin Affair: The True Story of the Greatest Theft in History.


5Cuno, James, Who Owns Antiquity?: Preface. p ix. Princeton University. 2008


7Cuno, James, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, University of Chicago Press, 2011

8Cuno, James, p. 3











comments powered by Disqus