The British Museum’s recent decision to loan out one of the Elgin marbles to the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg has further fuelled the debate, asking whether the marbles should be returned to Greece. Though I do intend here to ignore the legal arguments regarding the possible return of the marbles to Greece (which I find unpromising for the Greek cause and somewhat spurious*) I shall attempt to counter some of the popular arguments in defence of their remaining in London…
I am not a supporter of what David Cameron has branded “returnism”. Nor do I believe, as has been suggested by the director of the BM, Neil MacGregor that the return of the marbles will trigger the emptying of museums around the world. In 1983, the then Greek culture minister, Melina Mercouri described the marbles as “the symbol, the blood and soul of the Greek people”. Indeed, such sentiments have been frequently expressed by Greeks. The Elgin marbles, in all their splendour can justifiably be seen as the pinnacle of ancient Greek achievement. They are so central to Greek culture and national identity that in arguing for their return, I do not support nor facilitate the return of all other archaeological artefacts currently in museums away from their country of origin. I agree that the marbles are part of a wider European heritage, but their return to Greece would not prevent people from seeing them more easily as has been suggested. The fact that the loan to the Hermitage represents the first time any of the marbles have left the UK since they were acquired by Lord Elgin, refutes any notions that we have shared them more widely with the world. Instead, the marbles should be loaned out frequently, but they are the Greek’s to loan, not ours.
Though such arguments can be made to somewhat patronising extents, it is hard to deny that the removal of the marbles to Britain, did save them from considerable ruin. Before Lord Elgin took the marbles, the Parthenon had suffered catastrophic damage in an explosion, whilst locals were frequently chipping away pieces of marble to make limestone. Historians also claim that the structure would most likely have suffered further damage during the Greek war for independence.
Thus, whether it was his primary intention or not, by transferring them to London, Lord Elgin saved the marbles. The greatest tragedy that could possibly arise from the saga, is its leading to a considerable and lasting deterioration in Greco-British relations. If the marbles are to be returned to Athens, then recognition should be shown by the Greek government as to Britain’s role in preserving them. This can be achieved through simple gestures such as a plaque acknowledging the fact at the New Acropolis museum where the marbles would be housed and by frequent loaning of parts of the friezes back to the BM. Such expressions of gratitude were made by Melina Mercourri when the Greeks made their first official appeal but since then, a more hostile narrative has emerged, in which Elgin and the British are often branded simply as thieves.
Instead we should see the legacy of the Elgin marbles, and relations between our two countries as something positive, as cultural success, which can only feasibly be achieved by the returning of the Elgin marbles.
*For a scholarly breakdown of the legal arguments around the taking and returning of the Marbles, see John Henry Merryman’s article, ‘Thinking About the Elgin Marbles’, available from the QM library’s articles archive.