Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Why returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be madness
The Parthenon Sculptures have been on display in the British Museum for more than 200 years
The Parthenon Sculptures have been on display in the British Museum for more than 200 years CREDIT: GETTY
Nick Trend
5 JUNE 2018 • 10:53AM
Jeremy Corbyn declared in an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea this week that, as prime minister, he would open negotiations for the return of the Elgin Marbles - more properly known as the Parthenon Sculptures - to Athens. This apparently on the grounds that the original permission for their removal 200 years ago came not from the Greeks, but from the Ottoman Empire which occupied Greece from 1458 until the 1820s.

Mr Corbyn has been making this argument for many years, but I don’t know how much thought he has given to the ramifications. From his latest statement it seems that he is anticipating a widespread repatriation of all artefacts “stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession” included those “looted from other countries in the past”. That could quite conceivably leave the archaeological galleries of the British Museum denuded and, if applied in other countries, virtually empty many of the world’s great museums.

Let’s take this one step at a time. First, in pure academic terms, it would surely be a good thing to see all the surviving sculptures and friezes that once adorned the Parthenon re-united (and - in a perfect world - remounted on the building). That wouldn’t happen if the British Museum returned its marbles. The risk from pollution and earthquake is too great to re-install them and they would therefore join the other remnants already in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has a view over the original building. And there would still be lots of missing pieces - other decorative fragments and panels from the Parthenon are held in seven other museums around the world.

There are fragments from the Parthenon held in museums around the world The immediate consequence of the repatriation would then be that the sculptures are seen by far fewer people. The Acropolis Museum gets about 1.5m a year compared with over 6m who come to the British Museum. Those 6m would not only miss out one of the high points of world art, but the sculptures could no longer be studied or appreciated against the relics of other great cultures from around the globe.

Because that is why the British Museum is so important. It - and great museums like it, from the Louvre, to the Pergamon, the Hermitage and the Met - are not just some of the biggest academic institutions and tourist attractions in the world, each is a world in it own right, an extraordinary repository of the high points of human achievement across many different cultures. For 250 years, visitors have been able to walk into the British Museum and travel in wonder through both time and space. We owe two of Keats’ greatest poems - Ode on a Grecian Urn and On Seeing the Elgin Marbles - to his visits to the British Museum. In many, many ways, the museum it is a far more important and influential cultural construct than the Parthenon. Repatriation of its treasures would destroy it forever.

And now perhaps you think I am just over-complicating things. Not that many artifacts are, in practice, being argued over. But how that would surely change if the sculptures were returned and other countries saw a chance to build new museums and fresh tourist attractions. And then it wouldn’t be me who was complicating the argument, it would be the international lawyers and nationalist politicians sensing a precedent. And once legal arguments start, things rarely end well.


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