On 12th March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his first interview with a European Newspaper to reject the returning of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles in the British Museum to Athens. Speaking to Greek paper Ta Nea, Johnson argued that the UK Government has had a longstanding position on the matter, which is that the marbles were “legally acquired” by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This position has been consistently met with firm opposition from the Greek Government, which believes that the Parthenon marbles were taken illegally from their rightful home. Current Greek Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni, went so far as to label Lord Elgin a “serial thief”.
To be clear, the British Museum doesn’t possess all of the surviving Parthenon marbles. Rather, they own about one half of them. Their collection includes some 17 statues from the pediments, 15 metopes (carved panels), and 247 feet of the frieze from the Parthenon, the great temple to Athena built on Athens’ acropolis. The remainder of the Parthenon artefacts which survive are largely in Athens, with the rest scattered in fragments across other European museums. The British Museum’s collection represents a significant proportion of a hugely important historical resource. Therefore, attention has long rightfully been placed on their ownership of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles.
Built and decorated between 447 and 432 BC, when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power, the Parthenon is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece and acts as a symbol of early European civilization. The marbles, therefore, are very historically significant. As time progressed, the glory of Greece gradually decayed along with its architecture. In 1687 AD, the Parthenon was left in a state of semi-ruin, falling victim to an explosion when Athens, at that point under Ottoman occupation, was attacked by the Venetians. Over a century later in 1801, with the city still controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the British Ambassador in Athens, Lord Elgin, received permission from the Sultan to “take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures” from the Parthenon. Elgin took more than just “some pieces”, shipping what he gathered back to England. In 1821, a Greek independence movement launched a war against the Ottoman occupation, securing victory in 1832 and establishing the modern Greek state. Ever since, their governments have laid claim to all of the Parthenon artefacts. The debate over where they belong has yet to be resolved.
The main argument of both governments is over the legal ownership of the marbles. The British side contend that Elgin acquired the marbles legally. In this view, Lord Elgin and company acted lawfully under the Ottoman government of the day in Athens. The fact that that jurisdiction was violently replaced some decades later is none of their concern. On the other hand, the Greek government argues that Elgin took more than he was allowed to. Furthermore, they claim, the Ottomans were illegitimate rulers in Greece and had no right to make decisions about Greek cultural property like the Parthenon. This would remove any legal claim to the marbles that the British Museum or Government may have. Both sides have stubbornly clung to their arguments and seem unlikely to budge. Elgin’s deal with the Ottoman Sultan was undoubtedly dubious, but whether it had any legality must be left to the courts. For our purposes, to decide whether the Parthenon marbles should be returned to Greece or not, we can look elsewhere.
There are various other arguments about where the rightful destination of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles lies. Yet, most seem almost impossible to resolve. For instance, should the marbles be returned to Greece because that was where they originated? This would seem to put them into their proper geographical context. However, does the modern Greek state have a unique claim to ancient artefacts that are two and a half thousand years old and are most significant today as international symbols of early democracy and learning ? Perhaps then the marbles are better placed in the British Museum than the Acropolis Museum in Athens, as the former receives six times as many visitors annually than the latter. That way, they could be seen by more people. Moreover, maybe the British Museum only possesses these artefacts because of the legacy of colonialism. But this may fall on deaf ears when countered with the perception that the Museum is international in scope and can best present the Parthenon marbles within the context of other world cultures. The point is that, for all the quarrelling, there is no firm answer to many of these questions.
Nonetheless, I suggest the Elgin/Parthenon marbles should be returned to Athens. Other than a symbol of democracy or a badge of Greek identity, the marbles can and perhaps ought to be seen as beautiful pieces of art. When Lord Elgin took pieces of the Parthenon and returned them to England, he was cutting up one of the most famous creations of classical design. This would be like ripping the Mona Lisa in two. Quite literally, in some cases, there is the head of a Parthenon statue in London and its main body in Athens. The frieze, when whole, paints the stories of battles, gods, and ordinary Athenians. Separated as it is though, the stories it depicts are disjointed. The British Museum therefore should return the marbles to Athens in an effort to restore the Parthenon to its former splendour. Many of Elgin’s contemporaries thought along these lines too. Lord Byron, for instance, mournfully wrote of the Parthenon:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored
I doubt Boris Johnson will ever concede on Greece’s demands for the British Museum to reunite the Parthenon marbles. However, it would be invaluable for classical art if he did. Moreover, in the face of the UK’s exit from the European Union and strained relations with other European nations, the transfer of these artefacts from London to Athens would represent an act of friendship. On a continent where borders are hardening rather than softening, the return of the Parthenon marbles, which are of international significance, would be an opportunity to acknowledge common values and a shared past.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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