Friday, 5 December 2014

Should the Elgin Marbles be Returned to Greece?

Today it was announced that the Elgin Marbles have left London for the first time, on loan by the British Museum to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great to enable Russia to participate in the European Enlightenment. The politics of the move are very interesting (Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum has said that the relationship between the two museums is all the more important considering fears of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the west). The British Museum has used history to improve cultural links with China, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. For example, four years ago the Cyrus Cylinder, a small Persian clay tablet often described as the earliest charter of human rights, was loaned to Iran for an exhibition at which it was seen by nearly 500,000 people. 

However there is a controversy over the statues which I wish to talk about today. Whilst visiting the British Museum a few weeks ago I was intrigued by the idea, held by some, that most of the objects in the museum aren't actually owned by the British (they were 'stolen' centuries ago) and therefore ought to be returned.

Greece refuses to recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin Marbles, which make up about 30% of the surviving decoration from the Parthenon. The classical marbles – officially known as the Parthenon sculptures – were brought from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. They were acquired by parliament in 1816. The museum maintains that the sculptures’ reputation as art rather than decoration was forged in London and that they can best be understood in the context of Western civilisation by remaining in the museum. However for the past 40 years Athens has argued that they belong in Greece alongside the other remaining fragments, in a museum with a view of the Acropolis, where the ruined Parthenon stands. Amal Clooney has argued that "the Elgin Marbles, like fox-hunting, represent an overbearing past", that Britain is growing out of. 

The Greeks claim that even if Lord Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had bought the statues legally, at the time Greece was under Turkish occupation, meaning the rulers of the day may have agreed the deal, but the Greek people didn’t. Some people argue that had the sculptures stayed in Athens they might have been ground down to produce lime and used as rubble for building foundations. 

Ultimately, the Greek's argument has much larger connotations, for if the Greeks can prove their argument is right hundreds of other artifacts would have to be removed from museums around the world and sent back to where they originally came from. The Venus de Milo – also removed from Greece during the Ottoman empire – would have to leave the Louvre. The Tipu’s Tiger would have to be returned to Delhi from the V&A. The magnificent Assyrian galleries at the British Museum would be sent back to Baghdad. And there is another problem; countries and borders have changed significantly over time. For example, where would the great altar removed from the temple at Pergamon to Berlin go? Pergamon is in Turkey, but was once part of imperial Greece, imperial Rome, imperial Persia and imperial Byzantium - so who does it belong to? 


Understanding history recognises that things always change and that all actions are the product of their time. Sir John Boardman has warned that the return of Elgin Marbles would 'ruin' museums, in an "appalling precedent". Both David Cameron and the British Museum have firmly opposed calls for their return. “The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history,” a museum spokesman said. And, more importantly in my opinion, the removal of the sculptures to Greece would have a knock-on effect for museums around the world, ultimately causing far more damage than good.