Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility

Peplos Frieze scene bw

Tom Kazas  13 December 2013.  

This paper is a more detailed expression of a talk I gave on Saturday 16th November 2013 in Sydney, for the International Colloquy, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’.

I am very happy to be here, and honoured to participate in the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. I’d like to thank Dennis Tritaris for his work in organizing this International Colloquy, and Emanuel Comino for maintaining the charge.

I will say it often and clearly: in full and in place. The Parthenon Sculptures must be in full, as much as is now historically-physically possible, and in place, at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. A Latin expression captures this imperative, and is wonderful for its brevity and clarity: in toto in situ. The Greek translation speaks to the poetry of this plea: ensomatomena ekei pou oloklironontai.

In simple terms, what ‘in toto in situ’ really refers to is the Aesthetic Imperative.[1] This imperative is the argument that the Parthenon Sculptures must be returned to Athens, to be reunited with their severed ‘counter-parts’. For only in this state can we attempt a fuller understanding of the aesthetic qualities these sculptures embody. These qualities are not only those of visual form, but those of narrative itself; the work of literature that the Frieze of the Panathenaic procession is, or the drama that the Metopes and Pediments express, especially in their physical relationship to the dimensional qualities of the Parthenon. The Aesthetic Imperative states that the original intention of the sculptors, as far as possible, must be respected. For in this way we respect ourselves. However, we should be in no doubt that as a campaign for reunification, we are at a standstill. We languish in a kind of post-Mercouri hypnosis. For even though all arguments for retention have been refuted, what is painfully clear is that our desired outcome still eludes us. Clearly much more is needed in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.

I would also make the point that the British institutions, that is, the British Government (BG) and the British Museum (BM), are themselves are stuck. They are a victim of their own history, ambitions, legal system and the contingency of events. Clearly we should not accept the divisions that these British institutions have cleverly created in a 1963 parliamentary Act, between the BG and the BM, that keeps these sculptures in a convenient legal circularity of (ir)responsibility. Former British politician, Andrew Dismore has aptly described this legal operation as “pass the parcel.”[2] So rather than the BM being the only responsible party, it is more correct to refer to the responsible parties as the ‘British Institutions’, in contrast to the British people. The BG are complicit in this refusalism. They not only purchased of the Parthenon Sculptures from Thomas Bruce after stating they were ‘fairly and properly acquired(!), fit for purchase for 35k pounds’,[3] but created a legal structure to obfuscate responsibility for their retention. This complicity, however, does not exclude the argument that the British are themselves stranded. Might this all come down to how they can ‘save face’ upon the return of the Sculptures to Athens? As public opinion in Britain increasingly favours the reunion of the Parthenon Sculptures, seen in recent public debates there,[4] I believe the British want to find a way out but cannot, because their contemporary urges remain eclipsed by the long shadow of their imperial history. Part of our task is to find a way to help the British liberate themselves, to emancipate them from their own condition of aesthetic, legal and indeed moral imprisonment.

Our campaign must therefore be framed as a project of emancipation, it precisely becomes an operation of politics. We should not be proud of the boast that says that our campaign is ‘a-political’, that somehow it is only a cultural property issue, or a justice issue, or even an aesthetic issue. No, for to do so misses the point that we must confront the source of our grievances. We should redefine this task as precisely one of politics; of confronting illegitimate authority. One could say that until we understand this as a political problem, the resolution will elude us.

It is in this way that I read the plea by Emanuel Comino that “there are no more excuses.”[5] Indeed there are not. We must be brave enough to accept this political dimension; how each party has contributed to it, and how we can break out of this loop in which we are caught. So how do we interrupt this procedure, how do we create an emancipatory crack?

What I want to do in this talk is to investigate one very powerful way of breaking out. My talk is now titled: ‘Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility’. ‘Narrative’ is many things, and I don’t want to get caught in the different meanings this word has. What I want to do here is restrict its meaning to ‘the stories we tell about the Parthenon Sculptures’. I will show that we have a tremendous power at our disposal, and this is the power of narrative.

One Word: Sculptures

How often are we struck by the power of one word. Either by the way it restricts and evades, or by the way it expands and liberates. But usually, before we can act, that word has moved on and been replaced by another, and then another, until the possibilities of this word have vanished. I say we must halt and focus on one such word, and that word is ‘Sculptures’. For it is impossible to deny the power of language in shaping reality: words shape our thoughts, thoughts shape our actions, and actions shape our reality. So if we want to create the reality of the Parthenon Sculptures returned to Athens, then our task is obvious, we must choose our words carefully.

I am constantly struck by the indecision and fractured nature of how these Pheidian works are referred to. It appears that many people cannot decide whether they are ‘marbles’ or ‘sculptures’. These words are not synonymous, and to fall into the trap that they are reveals either: a lack of attention, an urge for cheap jokes, or an acceptance of a dangerous ideology. This blurring and uncertainty then becomes planted into the reader. It’s like we are hedging our bets; ‘marbles’ as some simple and direct, ‘matter of fact’ term, or ‘sculptures’, when wanting to emphasize the aesthetic qualities. It is precisely the neglect inherent in this lexical interchangeability, this inability to accurately define these Pheidian works that weakens the position of the reunification campaign. These two words have completely different sets of conceptual contents, and by conflating the two, we do the campaign harm. But, this of course this plays right into the hands of the British institutional propagandists.

Just two weeks ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, the title of an article sympathetic to the return of the sculptures, (referring to the UNESCO change in policy), had the title: “Rule changes could end Britain’s game of playing with marbles.”[6] At a recent meeting in Melbourne, attended by supporters of reunification, I heard a similar joke about “losing our marbles”.  I claim that such expressions do harm to our cause, they trivialize and distract from the crucial issues. I say that the reunification campaign is at fault for not insisting on the exclusive definition of the Pheidian works as ‘sculptures’. We are at fault for leaving it to others to mark the territory, and by falling into the trap that ‘marbles’ and ‘sculptures’ are synonymous, and therefore interchangeable. The campaign must claim this definitional space and focus attention on what these objects really are; they are sculptures. So it is in this way that the Comino statement of ‘enough is enough’ is a political plea, a plea to action that must begin with one word. It will be this word, whose use will take root and allow us, or better still the sculptures themselves, to tell their story.

My central point is this, that if we want the return of the Pheidian works from Britain, then we must insist on the exclusive use of the obviously correct term: ‘Parthenon Sculptures’. We must replace the word ‘marbles’ with ‘sculptures’ in our discourse; in our casual conversations, in our formal literature, in the text-space of social media, in our committee names – in our thinking. We should pull people up when they slip and use the word ‘marbles’ and ask them to refer to the these items as ‘sculptures’. For sculptures is what they are.

Sculptures not Marbles

I have yet to find a definition that refutes the claim that the Pheidian works are, first and foremost, ‘sculptures’. All references confirm that a sculpture is a piece of art made by shaping processes.[7] Even at this most basic level, and one that I think is inherently understood, the Pheidian works are absolutely ‘sculptures’. Do we really need to challenge this? I think not. However, my point is much less about an insistence on absolute definition, and much more about what the word ‘sculpture’ brings with it, and what we can leave behind with the word ‘marbles’. This is the pivotal operation.

By changing just one word, from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’, a whole domain of education and activism opens up for the reunification campaign. Firstly, this change allows us to restart the discourse. It allows us to initiate conversation on the nature of sculpture, and its centrality to the Greek Project. In simple terms, we have something important to re-define and to re-broadcast; we take up an offensive. A change of any key word in any discourse would have a similar effect, yet, it is precisely this effect we seek; a way to break out of the predicament in which we are caught. This insistence on ‘sculptures’ allows a redefinition of the terrain and affords an opportunity to re-engage with supporters, yet also those who are indifferent to, the campaign. We would have new issues to explain, such as, why this word was changed, why we think it is better, and what the problem with the old phrase was. This shift allows us to invigorate public attention by raising the status of these Pheidian works to that of their obvious existence as sculptures.

Secondly, this change allows us to reaffirm the Aesthetic Imperative, which I claim is the main argument for reunification. Again, this is the imperative that the Parthenon Sculptures must be in full and in place: in toto in situ. In Full means repatriating the Parthenon Sculptures from London back to Athens so that they can become, once again, an aesthetic whole. The contemporary reality of In Place means in the Acropolis Museum; with its dimensional Parthenaic reconstruction, its direct visual dialogue with the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon itself, bathed in Athenian light that vivifies the pentellic marble, and in context with the physicality of Athens, and wider still, Greece. By making this change from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’ clear and obvious, we make a direct incision into the discourse on Classical Athens.

Thirdly, this change also allows us to subvert the ideology of retention. It allows us to disrupt the narratives invented by the BM that are inextricably bound up in the word ‘marbles’. Not only would we invest the campaign with a positive message, with a reality-check, but we would identify the colonial ideology of appropriation, and begin to remove the conceptual obstacles inherent in the term ‘marbles’.

So why must ‘marbles’ to be abandoned? Firstly, it shares a long association with the term ‘Elgin’, and even for this reason alone it should abandoned. Most of us have dropped this term, but it still influences wider thinking and mainstream journalism,[8] especially for those unfamiliar with this issue. This ‘ownership by association’ with ‘Elgin’ must be broken. The media in general still like to refer to them as the ‘so-called Elgin Marbles’, because we have not effectively challenged this usage. The word ‘Elgin’ adds the advantage of scandal and complexity, it keeps the possibility alive that there is some kind of case to be made by the British, that there is in fact some contention, like that over the supposed ‘firman’, that is in reality only a ‘letter’ by a subordinate, translated and purposefully misconstrued to achieve a ‘permission to plunder’. There is no contention here, but only an art that remains fractured and separated. So while we are distracted by such a scandal, the British quietly continue their possession. ‘Elgin’ is obviously an incorrect term, because it also hides the idea that the sculptures only exist by virtue of the privileged grace of a British lord, that the elite position of Thomas Bruce adds some kind of weight of authority to the claim of possession. One can see the ideological operation here. I claim that we need to permanently break this link with ‘Elgin’ and the British possession it entails. We should abandon the term ‘marbles’, and in doing so, we can start to achieve this.

Secondly, the term ‘marbles’ reduces the Parthenon Sculptures to ‘property’. It is a reduction that signals their status as ‘only’ marbles, namely, that they are a loose collection of fragmented individual ‘pieces’, and as such can happily continue in their current disjunction. Furthermore, it strives to absolve the crimes of theft and vandalism, that these acts are less severe because they are only marbles. The term ‘marbles’ helps to disguise the real nature of these works, that they are sculptures that belong to a whole, and in doing so it demeans them and supports the ideology of retention.

Thirdly, they are not unmediated geological objects. They are not random pieces of irregular shaped rock, nor are they ‘found objects’ in any sense. One must not confuse the material these works are made from with the objects they become after transformation. It is embarrassing to state that they are a product of the ‘plastic arts’. They are not the little glass balls that children play with, nor are they the slabs that are often used as kitchen bench-tops. If we want to avoid such trivializations and obfuscations then we must abandon ‘marbles’ in favour of ‘sculptures’, for that is what they are. It becomes an operation of truth.

One of the problems this shift poses is the question of what happens to the names of a number of campaigning committees that use ‘marbles’ in their titles. The Australian and British committees use ‘marbles’, yet the American committee uses ‘sculptures’.[9] Why is there a difference? What does this disparity tell the world? In the twitter handles of many, including the Australian committee, the term is again used, as with @MarblesUnite. I claim that if we want to take a leap further down the path of reunification, then this naming problem has to be addressed. You might see how opportunities like this rarely present themselves, especially in a case that is 200 years old. So I make a strong plea to the committees to embrace these opportunities and replace the word marbles with sculptures. Now is the time.

The combined acts resulting from the exclusive use of ‘sculptures’ would signal a new solidarity in our cause, in itself is a desirable outcome, and play no small part in the equations of education and activism. It signals a new motivation, and allows us to make the point ever sharper and stronger. So I say most emphatically, this is not a trivial operation, and it becomes a vital precursor to subsequent action.  When ‘Parthenon’ and ‘Sculptures’ are joined we have the full and proper nomination. We have the full narrative in front of us: where they belong and why they are important: in toto in situ. This is the power of narrative, to let the sculptures tell their story.

Parthenon as Singularity: Local not Global

More speculatively, I would like us to consider how arguments of ‘global citizenship’, as stated by the title of this conference, have serious and problematic implications. If one is a citizen of the globe, does this not then negate the need for a singular residence? Does this not then undermine the claim for the importance of the singular site of the Acropolis? This leads onto ideas of ‘universal heritage’ and ‘world culture’, that are not only ill-defined and contentious, but converge dangerously close to the very same arguments the BM use to justify their retention. The BM emphatically advocates for the ‘universal museum’, that is supposed to be an institution ‘of the world for the world’, that somehow can “transcend political boundaries.”[10] Are not these curatorial narratives a construction of a particular point of view that supports the claims, and spoils of, empire? One can begin to see the proximity between ‘global citizen’ and ‘universal institution’, and it is this association, that I claim, emerges as problematic.

By attempting to trump the adversary’s claim to ‘global universality’, are we not conflating two quite separate things? Namely, that there exists a specific physical location whose aesthetics has been vandalized and whose integrity we are trying to restore, with, the idea that a ‘world culture’ allows the fragmentation of artworks because it somehow tells a more ‘important’ global story. Is this latter account anything other than a ‘curation story’, that supports retention by framing their possession in a British colonial story? It seems important to clarify that these types of stories are only ever inventions, contingent and never free from bias. If we are to neutralize these operations we might focus on the problem from the other end.

Can we make the argument that Ancient Athens was a ‘local’ culture, as opposed to a ‘global’ culture? Can we say that this culture was in fact a ‘singularity’? That the Parthenon itself is a singularity? A ‘singularity’ speaks of a specific location in space and time. It speaks of meaning as being embodied in that location in space and time, created by the unity and continuity of these sculptures being ‘in full and in place’. This conception does not deny the impact on world civilization of Classical Athens, nor does it exclude the reinterpretation necessary by subsequent societies. What it does say is that the local situation in Athens, and in particular the Parthenon, is that of a singularity. That this local embodied singularity precedes all later retro-active interpretations and selective cultural appropriations. In this way, the claim for unification is precisely the claim that the local context is paramount, and not the reverse, that of some diffuse global condition. The conception of ‘local singularity’ is more akin to the somewhat forgotten phrase of ‘think globally, act locally’. It is from this local context that the proliferation of meaning follows, from this singularity that cultural iterations begin. This is to say that the Parthenon Sculptures do not, at all, have the same meaning outside their reunified embodiment.

You see, the British institutional narrative attempts to subvert this idea of ‘local’ phenomena. They would have it that the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens are only part of a ‘local history’ that should be subsumed to the importance of a ‘global history’, and that this is only possible by their retention in London. This is the rendering of a binary opposition that privileges ‘global’ over ‘local’, that is a justification for retention. This leaves us with the patently absurd proposition that to understand Classical Athens we must fetishize it from afar; that by being fractured the Parthenon Sculptures can tell a superior story, and that only in an ‘encyclopedic-universal-museum-story’ can their global significance be understood. This is not only an error, but a deception.

I want to highlight the work of Tom Flynn in critiquing this concept of the Universal ‘encyclopedic’ Museum,[11] by discussing as he does, not only the history of these institutions from the 17th century ‘cabinets of curiosity’, their Enlightenment compulsion for taxonomy, but the imperial ideologies of acquisition and possession that support the mythologies of empire. These above speculations of mine, on ‘location’ and ‘singularity’, trace part of their genesis to this work by Tom Flynn, and I encourage you all to become familiar it.

What I am saying is this, that if one wants to understand these works of art, the narrative whole of the Parthenon Frieze, the embodied meaning of the Metopes and Pediments, the dimensional physicality of the Parthenon, the effects of Athenian light on the pentellic marble, the elevation and dialogue between the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis hill, the context of the physicality of Greece, the history of ‘place’, the singularity that was the culture of Classical Athens – then this is best achieved in Athens at the Acropolis Museum.

I think what we need to be saying, in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures, is that the Parthenon has a ‘citizenship of place’. This ‘citizenship’ and this ‘place’ reassert the idea that the Parthenon is an unparalleled edifice whose singularity must be respected, and though it exists in this particular place, it becomes a citizen of the world by being ‘invited in’ to the psyche of civilization. Citizenship of place does not become an end point, but a beginning.

The Day They Came Home

I’d like to conclude with a far simpler idea, and one that I believe can have a huge impact on the reunification campaign. Its inherent acts of imagination and creativity become another way of breaking the stalemate in our campaign. In this way, we have a movement from the narratives contained in ‘one word’ to the power in ‘one story’. This is the story of ‘The Day They Came Home’. It is a story that will tell of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.

This story, in fact the manys stories, will be the imaginatively detailed and beautifully written accounts that will describe in detail the events of this day. It is vital to create these ‘future narratives’, because to imagine this day is to bring it closer to reality. This imagining will provide the maps required to navigate the Parthenon Sculptures back to their home.

Stop and imagine that day…

Will it be a Saturday?

What type of ceremony will there be; simple and solemn, a cultural spectacle,

a jubilant party?

Which composer shall we engage for the music?

Will there be dance?

Who might we ask to write a poem for that day?

How many poems will be written?

Will it become a public holiday for Greece?

What route will the precession take?

Will there be people lining the streets for a parade?

How will we, necessarily, acknowledge the British?

This last question is crucial. What stories will we now start to tell of the British? How will we affirm the integral role the British have played in the story of the Parthenon Sculptures? How will they be celebrated for their gesture? What might the British now say of themselves?

One begins to get lost in the possibilities of The Day They Came Home. It will be in these stories that we will explore the possibilities of return, and allow the world to test and rehearse the ideas and practicalities of reunifying the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens. Storytelling as a glimpse of the future.

The campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures requires an agitation that must wield many powers. But we must also harness the power of narrative; the politics of sculpture, the function of a singularity, and the poetry of return. It is these powers that will change thinking, that in turn will chage reality, which makes me believe that the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is much closer than we think.

Thank You



[1]  For a fuller treatment of the aesthetic imperative see Christopher Hitchens 2008, The Parthenon Marbles: the Case for Reunification, Verso, London.

[2]  From the video of a talk given by Andrew Dismore 2012, Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. A Legal Perspective. <>

[3]  ibid.

[4]  Such as the Intelligence Squared Debate in London on 11/6/12, with the motion ‘The Parthenon Marbles Should be Returned to Athens’ <> What is interesting is the swing in audience voting. Prior to the debate the audience voted thus; for the motion 196, against 202, undecided 158. After the debate the audience again voted; for the motion 385, against 125, undecided 24. A rather striking message.

[5]  This plea by Emanuel Comino, chairman of the IOC-A-RPM, was an introduction to the 2013 International Colloquy, Sydney 15/11/13, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’. <;

[6]  From an article by David Hill in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8/11/13 <>

[7]  The Parthenon Sculptures are additionally many things, including architectural elements, but this additional context does not negate their status as ‘sculptures’. Perhaps ‘sculpture’ as defined by ‘The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, On Historical Principles, 6th Ed., Vol.2, N-Z, 2007, p.2718, cuts to the essence, “The art or process of creating (now usu. large) representational or abstract forms in the round, in relief, or (formerly) in intaglio, by chiseling stone, casting metal, modeling clay or some other plastic substance, carving wood, etc., or, now also, by assembling parts, the practice of this art.”

[8]  Such an example is the article ‘Top Ten Plundered Artifacts’ in Time magazine (online version, undated) <,28804,1883142_1883129_1883001,00.html> What is interesting in this article is that, apart from the erroneous term ‘Elgin Marbles’, the Parthenon Sculptures are the only ‘plundered artifacts’ that are not referred to by an original cultural name. Instead, they are referred to by the name of the plunderer.

[9]  The following three committees collaborate in the campaign for reunification of the sculptures, whose names are as follows: The International Organizing Committee – Australia – for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (IOC-A-RPM) <>,  The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (BCRPM) <;, The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures’ (ACRPS),’ <;

[10]  The British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures, that introduces the self-appointed concept of itself as a “resource of the world.” <> Both Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust advocate for the Universal Museum in their many books and talks. For a critique of the language and ideology of retention at the British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures see Tom Kazas 2012, Part 3, Parthenon Marble Cake: Having and Eating it Too’. <;

[11]  See Tom Flynn 2004, ‘The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?’ <> See also <> for a video of his talk on this subject at the Parthenon Marbles colloquy 2012. For a transcript of that talk see <;