Elgin Marbles Essay

George Clooney thinks Britain should return the Parthenon marbles to Greece. It's a widely held and perfectly respectable view – certainly not a "Hitlerian agenda" for London's cultural treasures, as Boris Johnson would have it. But is it right?

There are certainly bad reasons to return the marbles.

One is that Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire in the early 19th century, denuded the Parthenon of much of its sculpture immorally, or even illicitly. He certainly seems to have exploited his firman or licence from the Sultan to remove "stones with inscriptions and figures" from the building with an enthusiasm that did not escape the critical notice of contemporary observers.

When Elgin was forced by straitened financial circumstances to sell his booty, and the British parliament voted in 1816 to accept a select committee report that he had legitimately acquired it before purchasing the marbles for the British Museum, it took a narrowly legal view of the issue that was not universally accepted at the time, or even in the house: during the debate, Hugo Hammersley MP suggested that they be returned to Athens.

But we can't determine the right thing to do now solely on the basis that someone did the wrong thing done in the past – whether Lord Elgin himself, the government who endorsed his actions, or the British Museum staff who damaged the sculptures through over-enthusiastic cleaning in the 1930s. That's not to say that institutions and states, and perhaps even families, shouldn't be held responsible for the present consequences of their past actions, even if none of the people directly involved or affected are still alive. But putting those past wrongs right is rarely as simple, or as cheap, as reversing the original act.

Another reason is that the marbles belong to Greece. The temple itself was built in the 5th century BC by the city-state of Athens for Athena, its patron goddess, and it housed the tribute the Athenians received from the other city-states subject to them: hardly a symbol of Greek democracy or fellow-feeling. Athens ceased to exist as a Greek polis in the 6th century AD, well over a thousand years before the seventh Earl of Elgin removed them from the Ottoman empire. The nation of Greece dates back to 1830, 20 years after Elgin finished his dirty work, and 14 years after the British state turned them over to the British Museum, whose trustees are now the legal owners of the sculpture. It is hard to see what the modern nation states of Greece and the UK, or the issue of ownership, really have to do with the question of where the Parthenon sculptures are best displayed.

But there's a very bad reason not to return to the marbles, which is that doing so would set a precedent. That depends entirely on what is done. Returning the marbles to Greece would indeed suggest that cultural artefacts should as a rule be sent to the modern nation state occupying the land on which they were built or found.

But if the guiding principle is that our global cultural heritage belongs to all of us, and should be available to as many of us as possible, then more difficult decisions have to be made.

In this case, there's a persuasive argument that people should have the chance to see the marbles beside the Acropolis on which they were first erected. In the new Acropolis Museum, the Parthenon itself is visible through the windows of the room in which the marbles would be displayed together with the fragments that remained in Athens. The sculptures currently split in two – including a decapitated goddess and a great procession that disappears half way through – would be reunited, and would finally make all their sense. Athens is no less accessible than London to the rest of the world, and to see and think about this temple and almost all of its sculpture on the same morning, under the same Athenian sky, would be a privilege and a joy.

So perhaps George Clooney is wrong, and Britain should not return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. But there is a case that the British Museum should send them to the Acropolis Museum in Athens with ownership invested in a trust connected to neither institution or state. The fact that this solution would be unacceptable to both Greek and British governments is a problem of modern nationalism, not ancient sculpture.

It is lunacy to believe you own the moon, and no amount of tomato juice you spill into the sea will make its water yours. Yet we ask the question “who owns antiquity?” as if it were a sane one.

There is a reason for this. It’s the reason why Dennis Hope, founder of the Lunar Embassy and self-dubbed President of the Galactic Government, is no lunatic but an entrepreneur who has sold over 600m acres of “extraterrestrial real estate” to over 6m people. It’s the reason why Nestlé has rebranded itself as a corporate water steward, while bottling ground water at the expense of local communities.

It’s also the reason why today, on the 200th anniversary of the British parliamentary vote to purchase the sculptures that Lord Elgin sawed off the Parthenon, the British Museum continues to insist that its trustees are legally entitled to the sculptures. And it’s the reason why human rights lawyers, marshalled by Amal Clooney, have once again advised a Greek government unwilling to put forward a legal claim that it should take this museum to court.

‘Stones of no value’

In 1801, Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman court from which he obtained a limited license to collect “some stones of no value” from the Acropolis, with which to adorn his estate back in Scotland. The excised sculpted blocks were shipped back to the UK and in 1811, on the verge of bankruptcy, Elgin offered to sell them to the nation. Five years later, the state bought 15 metopes, 17 pedimental sculptures, and 80 metres of frieze for £35,000 (equivalent to at least £2.4m today, placed in the trust of the British Museum.

According the Guardian correspondent Helena Smith wrote: “Activists have been counting down to what they call the ‘black anniversary’” (June 7 2016). Nothing could be further from the truth. Most activists agree that had the parliamentary vote to purchase not been won, the sculptures may well have ended up in the illegal art market and vanished without a trace. The real controversy surrounding the debate concerned the fact that the British government was willing to spend such a huge amount at a time of national famine.

But all that was then and this is now. Among other things, Greece is no longer a subject province of the Ottoman Empire. In 2009 the country opened the New Acropolis Museum, which has been specifically designed to display all of the sculptures, and currently displays plaster casts of the London marbles next to the original Athenian ones.

A recent British Museum press statement claimed that the Parthenon sculptures are “a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries”. Greece’s minster of culture, Aristides Baltas, similarly said that “we do not regard the Parthenon as exclusively Greek but rather as a heritage of humanity”. Yet the British Museum also asserts that the sculptures are “a vital element in this interconnected world collection” and the usually diplomatic Baltas was also quoted as saying:

We are trying to develop alliances which we hope would eventually lead to an international body like the United Nations to come with us against the British Museum.

These curious juxtapositions all echo those of Nestlé’s chairman (and former CEO) Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who claimed that when he said “access to water is not a public right” what he really meant was that “water is a human right” (albeit only the 1.5% of it that Nestlé is content not to buy and re-sell). The New Acropolis Museum currently charges a €5 general admission fee for the “heritage of humanity”. The entrance to the British Museum is of course, free; but it leads to suggested donation boxes, gift shops where one can purchase “Elgin Marbles” memorabilia, overpriced cafeterias, and ticketed special exhibitions.

Parthenon regained

The Parthenon marbles form an integral part of a larger whole, a temple dedicated to Athena whose frieze, metopes, and pediments variously depict her birth, the Panathenaic procession, the sack of Troy, and an array of mythological fights and contests.

There is no other example of a piece of art as crudely dismembered as the Parthenon, with even the heads and bodies of individual sculptures located in different countries (a few rogue pieces somehow ended up in the Louvre and other European museums which have yet to make any gestures of return). If the missing sculptures and fragments of this aesthetic travesty were to be reunited with those in the New Acropolis Museum, visitors could study them as one entire whole, with a direct view of the monument to which they belong.

The time is right for all surviving sculptures to be reunited under this single roof. They should be displayed, for free, in a joint Greek and British international museum. This bicentenary provides the perfect opportunity for the two nations to collaborate instead of bicker over ownership. The British Museum would be praised worldwide for all its actions, culminating in a collaborative partnership that genuinely benefits humanity. It is high time that ownership of the past became a thing of the past and we began to think in terms of joint custody instead.

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