Along with many others, I attended the debate at Cadogan Hall in London last night, on whether the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens.
The final line up for the debate was:
For the Motion
Andrew George MP
Against the motion
Tristram Hunt MP (& historian)
Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Professor of History at Notre Dame University in the USA)
The debate was chaired by BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi.
As people entered the debate, a poll was taken, and gave the following results:
For the motion: 196
Against the motion: 202
So, at this stage, those who wanted to keep the Marbles in the British Museum were in the majority, albeit by a small amount. The hope was, that even if these people couldn’t be convinced, to changed their minds, then those who were undecided would be able to be swung towards the case for their return.
I won’t go into too much detail on Andrew George’s arguments & Stephen Fry’s, as articles by both of them have already been posted on this site & there were no major surprises in the approach that they took (links to previous articles – Andrew George – Comment: No bailout, but will the Elgin marbles do? & Stephen Fry – A modest proposal). Andrew George opened, with his recounting of attempts to table an Early Day Motion about the Stone Henge megaliths in Greece (followup here), which although it is on the face of it just an amusing story, highlights that people may well see things differently, when they look at a similar situation from the opposite side of the table.
Stephen Fry’s assertions were for us to show that we can be a classy country – that we can do the right thing & make Britain look good on an international stage, rather than clinging on to the many fallacious arguments that often seem to engulf this issue.
Tristram Hunt mentioned early on, that “Athens is just as well equipped to look after the Marbles as Britain“. Coming from someone arguing to keep them here, perhaps this should finally put to rest, the contention (which probably should have gone away about the same time the British Empire ended) that the Greeks could not look after the artefacts as well as the British.
After this positive (for those arguing for their return) start though, there was some slight topic drift, with comparisons to the Wedgewood china around the world that comes from the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent (singing the praises of his own constituency as much as anything else). While he is right that Wedgewood pottery has made Stoke on Trent famous around the world, what we are talking about here is a product of the industrial revolution – something that is mass produced & designed to be sold. In most cases, there are no doubts over the rightful owners & none of the plates that I know of were ever designed with the purpose as serving as integral structural elements of a building in a UNESCO World Heritage site. He argued, that the people of Greece should be proud that their marbles are on display in the British Museum. Whether or not they are proud, is not quite the point here, as they never requested that they were put on display in Britain – so it can’t be compared to the popularity of loans made to museums, with the main intention of exhibiting culture around the world.
Then, the assertion was made, that the marbles had been acquired completely legally by Elgin. This statement (which he would not back down from), goes against much of the research into the firman, which we only know of through a single surviving translated copy in Italian, which gives Elgin no clear permission to do anything other than take casts & remove loose pieces of stone that had already fallen to the ground. Alluding to the run up to the second gulf war, Andrew George had already referred to the firman, as Elgin’s dodgy dossier. Even at the time of Elgin’s sale of the sculptures to the British government, the speaker’s notes read “Lord Elgin’s petition presented. The collection praised. Lord Elgin’s conduct, and his right to the collection as his private property much questioned. Petition to lie on the table.” so clearly not everyone sees this as quite such a clear cut case of completely legitimate ownership.
Hunt (Tristram, not Elgin’s chaplain) stated, that he sees the firman as entirely legal, on the basis that it has never been challenged in law. I wanted to ask him (but did not get the chance to), whether, on this basis, were the case of legitimate ownership by the British Museum challenged in a British or International court, he would then be willing to revoke this argument & accept that they were in Britain unlawfully.
Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, took the stage after Stephen Fry, although he had earlier made some pointed comments that the motion for the debate had to be stuck to – that we were only discussing the merits of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, & that whether or not they were going to be displayed in the New Acropolis Museum was not a relevant point.
After a complete derailment of the argument where he tried to describe Stephen Fry as a national treasure, he settled down to actually discussing the issue at hand. He sees the New Acropolis Museum as a different type of Museum to the British Museum, where we should think of it as being a mirror, rather than a window. This might be the cases, and they are definitely different types of museum – but that does not necessarily mean that one role or mode of display is somehow any more valid than another.
A lot of his reasoning hung on the Universal Museum argument – something that has received much criticism in the past & is definitely not an idea accepted universally. He pointed out that for professionals, having centres of reasearch is important, but it is unclear, why Athens itself (it does not have to be limited to a single institution, as they are all relatively near to one another) could not become a centre for the research of Greek sculpture on this basis. He suggested that only in the British Museum are researchers able to uncover new facts about the artefacts, but surely perhaps a whole different set of new findings might emerge if the sculptures could be observed in the context of other artefacts from the same location, but different eras?
The slippery slope (also known as the floodgates) argument was raised, yet this argument tends to ignore three points – the first being, that many artefacts have already been returned from museums for a variety of reasons & in a variety of circumstances, without opening any floodgates. The second point, is that each cases is unique & assessed on its own individual merits, so it is hard for a precedent to be set. The final problem with this argument, is that it advocates not taking the right action now, for fear that you might have to repeat it again in the future – when surely, if it is the right action, then it is right for it to be repeated?
He also raised the possibility that the campaign for return of the marbles was a recent thing & a sign of Greek nationalism – comparing it (somewhat insultingly) to the rise of Golden Dawn & Neo-Naziism at the most recent elections in Athens (I know many who support the return of the Marbles & none of them are even vaguely close to supporting the principles of Golden Dawn). This argument ignores many earlier restitution requests & proposals, along with the fact that Elgin’s actions were mentioned in a critical way less than fifty years after the removal of the sculptures.
There was quite a lengthy Q&A session, where members of the audience raised their own points both for & against the return of the sculptures. This revealed one other interesting point – they wanted to get the opinions of some Greeks, and it became clear, that while there were many Greeks in the audience, they were clearly outnumbered by the non-Greeks, probably constituting less than 20% of those there.
At the end, a new poll was taken, giving the following result:
For the motion: 384
Against the motion: 125
Note that the totals vary slightly, because a number of people had to leave early, as the debate lasted longer than had originally been indicated.
So what had begun as a slight win for those in favour of keeping the sculptures in Britain turned into a resounding vote in favour of their return.
If we look at the numbers more closely, we can see that the number in favour of return almost doubled, while those wanting to keep them here reduced by 60%. Only 15% of the original fence sitters were left, with the rest having managed to make up their mind one way or the other.
As an overall result, nearly three times as many people were in favour of the return of the sculptures as wanted to keep them in the UK, with less than 5% being unwilling to express an opinion either way.
This highlights what I have thought for a long time – that the more people know about the Marbles, the more they are likely to support their return. It definitely appeared to be true in this case.
Thank you to everyone who took part in the debate (on both sides) & attended it – I think a lot of people learned many new points about the subject & some were even persuaded to change their point of view on it. Thank you especially to Zeinab Badawi, for managing to control both sides, keeping them on topic & trying to let as many people have their say within a limited amount of time (and adding a bit of amusement to the proceedings at times too).
Edited recordings of the event will be broadcast on BBC World News at 09:10 and 21:10 on 23 June, and 02:10 and 15:10 on 24 June. See this post for more details of how to watch it.
After the first TV broadcast date, the recording will also be available to watch on Intelligence Squared’s website and on their Youtube Channel
Please use the #iq2marbles hashtag if you want to search for (or discuss) coverage of the event on Twitter