In response to:
We Are All Romans Now from the May 31, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
In his account of the new Roman galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art [“We Are All Romans Now,” NYR, May 31], Garry Wills suggests that source countries of antiquities lay claim to them on the grounds of ethnic identity with ancient cultures, and that in this they are supported by archaeologists. Whatever the political rationale for national ownership claims, the position of archaeologists both inside and outside the source countries is that state ownership of antiquities from the soil is an effective way to protect archaeological sites from looting, the chief cause of which is the market demand created by museums and collectors. This is the real issue, not the claim of ethnic identity, that motivates archaeologists, who have constant firsthand experience of the destructive effects of market-derived pillaging.
Professor Wills also claims that “if some archaeologists had their way, there could be no museums of antiquities outside the countries where the objects were originally found.” This is the sort of polemical statement more often heard from entrenched museum curators who want to continue to collect as their predecessors did in the eighteenth century. I know of no archaeologists who question the legitimacy of the existing collections, or want to see any museums emptied of their possessions. Most archaeologists do believe that museums should not purchase objects that were illegally excavated and exported in recent times. That such works (like the Euphronios krater or the Morgantina silver) should be returned seems only just and correct. While these and other, legitimately excavated antiquities should be displayed in local museums in the countries of origin, in the future such works of ancient art will be increasingly available to foreign museums through loans and traveling exhibitions.
As for the Elgin Marbles, they are the sort of rare exception to which no statute of limitations should be applied. In the eyes of many in Britain and elsewhere, the Parthenon has a claim to wholeness not on ethnic grounds but because it is one of the very greatest human achievements in the arts. Garry Wills has made an eloquent defense of the rebuilding of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia according to its original design; I suggest that the claim of the dispersed fragments of the Parthenon to being reunited in Athens is in some way analogous.
Malcolm Bell, III
Professor of Art History
University of Virginia
Co-director, US excavations at Morgantina
Garry Wills replies:
Malcolm Bell was very helpful to me when I was writing about the Lawn of the University of Virginia, and I have great respect for his expertise and opinion. I not only agree with his concern about theft from excavations, but wrote in my review that “where there are clear laws preventing sale or export, they must of course be enforced.” I am not so sure as he is that no archaeologist is affected by ethnic nationalism in his or her laudable concern for protecting discovery sites. On the Elgin Marbles, he says that the supreme beauty and integrity of the original object transcend all statutes of limitations. It is hard to make beauty a legal category, and the Marbles, if returned, would not be reintegrated with the Parthenon (which would subject them to environmental damage). They would go into an air-controlled separate building not part of the original plan of the Acropolis—just as they are exhibited in London, in air-controlled housing specially created for them. To use his own parallel with Jefferson’s Rotunda, returning the Marbles to Athens would be like reconstructing an interior of the Rotunda outside the Rotunda, housing it in a new building on the Lawn which is not part of Jefferson’s original design for it. The real argument for return of the Marbles is neither beauty nor integrity but ethnic nationalism—the Melina Mercouri argument.
June 28, 2007