6 January 2023

Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be an act of historic vandalism


George Osborne – the British Museum’s current chairman – is close to agreeing a loan agreement to send the Elgin Marbles to Athens. This should horrify not only his fellow Tories, but anyone with even a passing interest in history. It would be an act of vandalism, based on spurious historical and legal arguments, that would fatally undermine a world-leading museum.

The Museum is apparently pursuing a ‘Parthenon partnership’ with the Greeks. The language reflects that of the Parthenon Project, a pressure group that has been sponsoring Athens trips for parliamentarians. This kind of soft diplomacy reflects a recent change in the Greek government’s approach, following its failure to legally challenge the Museum’s ownership of the Marbles (despite George Clooney’s support).

Granted, Athens offers the apparent sweetener of providing artefacts on rotation in the sculptures’ absence. But the underlying problem with any Marbles agreement is the Greek government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the Museum’s legal ownership – especially as the British Museum Act 1963 prevents it from giving away objects in its possession. 

Thus any agreement would be, de jure, a loan. The experience of an Italian museum that recently ‘lent’ an artefact to the Acropolis Museum is instructive here. Nominally this was for eight years; Athens now says it will be kept permanently. That strongly suggests that sending the Marbles to Greece means they will never return.

Moving the Marbles to Greece does have some benefits. Athens possesses 30% of the sculptures in fragments left by Elgin. The Museum is within sight of the Parthenon, the Marbles’ original home. The Greek artefacts have patches of their original colour, unlike the British sculptures, which were scrubbed white in 1930s. The Museum contains excavations from the original Parthenon, destroyed by the Persians. 

But only by highlighting what could be gained in a ‘deal’ can we highlight how much more is lost. The Marbles’ nature changed on removal from the Parthenon. They went from temple artwork to a museum exhibit. Lord Elgin originally wanted the sculptures to spruce up his Scottish home, but they have been the British Museum’s since 1816. Sending them to Greece would not ‘reunify’ them with the Parthenon. it would simply move them from one museum to another. 

Weighed against the Acropolis Museum’s greater proximity should be that moving the sculptures from London (21 million tourist visits in 2019) to Athens (6.3 million) would greatly reduce the number of potential visitors. And isn’t the point of displaying an object that as many people can see them as possible?

What’s more the British Museum, as David Abulafia has highlighted, is one of the world’s few ‘Great Universal Museums’. Rather than be placed in the narrow context of 5th century Athens, the Marbles sit within the grand sweep of human civilisation, part of a much wider educational and cultural experience. 

There is also the irony that those who would defend Britain’s global obligations in other contexts would surrender those principles by pandering to Greek nationalism. The Greek claim to a continuity between their state and the age of Pericles is as absurd as modern Egypt claiming descent from the Pharaohs, or Saddam Hussein’s penchant for picturing himself with the kings of ancient Babylon. 

When Elgin acquired the Marbles, Greece had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. The historians Noel Malcolm and William St Clair have highlighted that when Elgin came to remove the Marbles, they were being damaged and vandalised at an alarming rate. A traveller in 1749 drew 12 figures in the Parthenon’s west pediment; by 1800 there were just four. How much would remain today had Elgin not saved the sculptures? 

St Clair’s research also suggested that the removal was done with the agreement of the Ottomans, with no apparent complaints by the Greeks. Indeed, the Orthodox Church, according to the archaeologist Mario Trabucco della Torretta, was ‘only too happy’ to see the pagan statues go. 

Greece won independence from the Ottomans in 1832 – the same year the Marbles were relocated to the Elgin Room. British support for Greek independence was embodied by Lord Byron, himself no great fan of Elgin, but reflective nonetheless of 19th century Britain’s Hellenism – an enthusiasm the Marbles encouraged. Elgin should be a Greek folk hero as much as Byron.

Demands for Athens to have the Marbles are a product of post-independence Greek nationalism. Insisting on a continuity with Pericles was a way for Greeks to contrast themselves with their former Turkish oppressors, and ignore the centuries spent under Rome, Byzantium, the Venetians, and the Ottomans. Yet modern Greece owes far more to the Orthodox Church than to a city state that flourished two millennia ago.

In fact, one could say that Elgin’s Britain had a better claim as ancient Athens’ inheritor than nineteenth century Greece. This was a country whose rulers were so steeped in ancient Greek history that a Prime Minister like Gladstone could translate Homer for fun. This argument was given a modern sheen by one of the Grand Old Man’s successors whilst he was Mayor of London (despite his youthful partiality for the Greeks’ arguments). 

This extended history lesson serves to illustrate that a legal and moral case can be made for the British side, as well as for the Greek. After Elgin and then the Museum legally acquired the Marbles, we have preserved and promoted them for two centuries. Such a success naturally elicits jealousy from the other side of the Mediterranean. 

What’s up for debate now, however, is the Marbles’ future. Seeing them reunited with other aspects of the Parthenon would be nice. But this could be more easily done in London since fewer objects would need to be moved. The Greeks would point to their shiny new museum; we could benevolently negotiate some form of timeshare. But, as outlined, Athens cannot be considered a reliable actor. For them, this is fundamentally about national pride. 

It should be the same for us – the Museum does have British in its name, after all. If our national museum gives in, its universal purpose will be irrevocably damaged. The same logic deployed by the Greeks could be used by the Egyptians to take back the Rosetta Stone – or by the Italians, Syrians, Iraqis, and other wanting to ‘reclaim’ treasures based on geographic proximity to ancient civilisations.

If museums based their collections solely on how nearby their contents were found, the galleries of the Met and the Louvre would be all but empty. The British Museum as we know it would be an impossibility. To agree with the Greeks is to suggest the inheritance of Athens is their property alone. The history of the last 2,500 years resolutely tells us it is not. That is what the Marbles’ place in the British Museum celebrates.

In resisting Osborne’s efforts, we thus have a higher principle on our side, as well as basic legal right. If the Marbles are sent to Greece, countless visitors lose the chance to admire a historic artefact which we have long protected. For all mankind, Britain must keep the Marbles.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.