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Picking over the Parthenon

The cooling of national passions reveals the real reason why the Elgin Marbles belong in Bloomsbury.

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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The battle over the Parthenon Marbles has rumbled on since Lord Elgin took them from Athens in the early nineteenth century.

Greece’s nationalistic claim to the marbles has been drummed into every Greek schoolchild for generations. British leftists from Lord Byron to Christopher Hitchens sympathised (Byron penned the lines for the Parthenon: ‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/By British hands…’).

The British elite, by contrast, was determined to hang on to them. It was a matter of pride that the best of ancient art lay at the centre of the British Museum. British cultural figures often cast doubt upon contemporary Greeks’ ability to appreciate or care for the marbles.

What is striking today is how anodyne the debate has become. The heat of battling nationalisms and anti-nationalisms has died away, leaving a curious argument about where the marbles would look best. The question of Bloomsbury or Athens has become akin to furniture arranging.

Freddie New, the campaign manager for the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, told me that he wanted to ‘leave those old disagreements behind’. Rather than defending Greek claims to the marbles, he said the issue was ‘what is best for the marbles as an artistic and architectural collection’. Today ‘the sculptures are fragmented’ – in some cases half a sculpture is in London and the other half is in Athens. In Athens’ new Acropolis Museum the reunited marbles will be arranged according to the dimensions and layout of the Parthenon. A campaign launched in London on 14 January, Marbles Reunited, is linked to a touring exhibition that shows the different bits of the marbles joined together.

This light approach might be expected from the band of classicists, MPs and actors in the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. Yet the Greek government now takes a similar tack. The Greek culture ministry assures that this is ‘not a nationalistic claim made by the Greek government and the Greek people’ but ‘the claim of the mutilated monument itself’ (1). The different parts of the Parthenon simply belong together, they say.

Greece is no longer claiming ownership of the marbles – instead, it asks for a long-term loan, in exchange for which it will loan highly prized collections of Greek antiquities. Rather than national interests, Greece talks about ‘working for peace and reconciliation’ and affirming the two countries’ ‘long-standing friendship’. Instead of whipping up nationalism at home, the Greek government has employed the world’s fourth largest PR firm to win its case in the UK. The PR firm recently promoted a survey showing that 80 per cent of the British population favours a loan to Athens (2).

Today’s British cultural elite is also more ambivalent about the marbles. Of course, some of the Old Guard defend the marbles as a kind of last stand, in an age when both British nationalism and notions of cultural excellence have become old hat. The occasional newspaper column contrasts the marbles’ exquisite beauty with the Greek government’s base political motives. But this view is restricted to a minority. Deputy director of the Museums Association Maurice Davies told me that he favoured the loan of the marbles for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, as a way of trying to ‘move beyond the standoff’. He also said that many other museum professionals felt similarly.

In this context, the British Museum and government’s steadfast refusal to release the marbles sometimes appears begrudging. When faced by such a cooperative and commonsensical Greek campaign, the British position can appear mean-spirited and pedantic. Defenders of the British Museum often assert that the marbles were purchased legally, or that the Parthenon has been too badly damaged for the sculptures to be reunited. It is perhaps not surprising that such arguments have failed to win the British public’s heart.

This is a pity, because it is vital that the marbles remain in the British Museum. Not because the marbles look better there, because the British Museum owns them, or because the Greeks can’t look after them. Quite simply, the marbles take on a higher meaning in Bloomsbury than they ever could in Athens.

In the British Museum the marbles can be seen among the artefacts of human history. Next door we see the geometric perfection of ancient Egyptian figures, with their fixed gazes and folded arms. In the Great Court, we see an Easter Island statue pouting towards the heavens. Other parts of the museum take in Neolithic and Medieval Europe, the Incas and Aztecs, Africa, China and Rome. As a British Museum statement puts it, here the marbles can be seen as a ‘chapter in the story of human cultural achievement’. The marbles appear as a leap in the development of human culture, rather than as part of a fine temple built by Pericles in fifth century Athens.

Even in their fragmented state, the marbles make their point. In comparison to the stiff statues in the adjoining galleries, they have a rare beauty and sense of vitality. The drapery on the reposed female figures seems to ripple. You barely notice that the ladies have no heads.

The cooling of national passions enables us to see more clearly why the issue matters. Now that nationalism and politics are out of it, we can look more rationally at the question of where the marbles best belong. This shouldn’t be reduced to the trivialities of furniture arranging or legal bookkeeping. Instead, it requires a reconsideration of what is special about the marbles and what is special about the British Museum. When this is done, the marbles and the museum appear made for each other.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) The official Greek position on the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, Hellenic ministry of culture

(2) Poll finds UK support on Marbles, Kathimerini, 12 January 2004

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