Neal Ascherson has written a lengthy article in the Observer about the reasons why he believes the Elgin Marbles should be returned. This article is prompted by a new BBC film on the subject to be shown later this week.
The Observer 
End the exile
For 300 years we have had the Elgin Marbles, but the case for their return is now unanswerable
Sunday June 20, 2004
In August, the Olympic Games begin in Athens. The world will converge on the city crowned by the Parthenon. But the Greeks, hoping against hope, have invited a very special group of guests who will not be coming. The sacred figures of the Elgin Marbles, sawn off the temple by a Scottish nobleman almost 200 years ago, will be staying in the British Museum.
This week, a fair-minded BBC film will examine Lord Elgin and what he did. It will also set out the arguments, some respectable, some disgraceful, which have kept the marbles here in the teeth of generations of Greek – and British – protest. At the Games, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell will meet her opposite number, Costas Karamanlis, who is both minister of culture and the new Prime Minister. It is obvious what he will say to her. It is far from obvious that they will agree.
Where are they going, those grave maidens carrying wreaths, those bareback horsemen brooding as they ride? I’m one of those who hope that they are going back to Greece. Not just because Lord Elgin took them wrongfully, and not just because the Greeks need them more than we do. But because it’s time they left England. They have been here too long for England’s good.
The marbles in the British Museum are performers, trained as actors in a ceremony. But this is not the Panathenaic Procession. It is a Great British ceremony, about an imperial splendour which thought of itself as universal rather than merely national. In the Duveen Gallery, within the British Museum, these figures no longer deliver Athens any more than the bagpipers who tramp round banquets at Windsor Castle deliver Scotland. They are guests from Greece who became so well known during the 19th century that they were adopted into the family.
Some Victorians took that literally. They looked at the broad-chested, muscular bodies and announced that the Greeks of the 5th century BC could not have been the ancestors of the puny modern inhabitants of Attica or the Peloponnese. No, the Parthenon must have been built by a Teutonic race, in other words, by the proto-English.
Robert Knox, the anatomist who made his name with corpses snatched or murdered by Burke and Hare, claimed to recognise on the streets of 1850s London the ‘large-limbed, athletal’ males and ‘full-bosomed, fleshy and large-limbed’ women of the Parthenon marbles. What a pity that the complete figure of Poseidon from the west pediment was not around to back his case. Poseidon has a terrific six-pack of abdominals, but London possesses only his shoulders and torso. Lord Elgin failed to grab the stomach, which remains on show in Athens.
Two years ago, the Greek ministry of culture featured Poseidon in a clever picture book, The Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures . This shows what the separated fragments in Athens and London would look like if they were joined together again. Apart from sculptures from the pediments, Elgin took 56 of the surviving frieze panels and 15 of the external metope panels. Forty of the former and 39 of the latter remain in Athens.
The story of these important guests is in three chapters. At first, they were greeted as sexy but illegal immigrants. Elgin, who started hacking them off the Parthenon in 1801 and finally sold them to the nation in 1816, was regarded by many as a racketeer who had kidnapped these Greek natives and wangled asylum for them in Britain.
When he defended his actions before a parliamentary inquiry in 1815, he made the ‘refugee from persecution’ argument: he had rescued the statuary because the Turkish authorities in Athens were about to grind them up for limestone mortar. But this was not what he had said at the time. His rationale changed frequently. At first, he proposed merely to measure the marbles and have them drawn. Then he had the notion of shipping the best of them back to adorn his new country house in Scotland.
Later, as his men sawed off one relief after another (the marbles were an integral part of the temple, not separate decoration), Elgin simply instructed them to take everything good, and postponed plans about what to do with it. At one point, he even thought of dismantling and removing the nearby Erechtheum and its caryatids. ‘Bonaparte has not got such a thing from all his thefts in Italy!’
The plea that he was rescuing the marbles from destruction was an afterthought. But it wasn’t untrue. The Turks did smash up some sculptures, and today, after 200 years of weathering and pollution, the marbles in the British Museum are in better shape than the metopes and frieze panels which stayed in the Parthenon.
After the protests, the public calmed down and grew to love the marbles. The Victorians were moved by the fancy that the English were the new Greeks – rulers of an empire maintained not by brute force but by moral and intellectual grandeur. Those who taught in the public schools were also interested in the marbles because of all that male nakedness. Clearly, these were ‘healthy minds in healthy bodies’.
Pagan Greeks were appointed as the ancestors of English muscular Christianity. The icon of the naked man on a horse came to stand for Britishness – physical power and grace plus incorruptible virtue. The horseman found his way on to the gold sovereign, where the image of St George is one of the Parthenon riders with an added dragon.
In the mid-20th century, British opinion began to swing. Greece and Britain fought together for survival against Hitler, and in 1941 the Foreign Office accepted in principle that the Elgin Marbles could be returned to Greece after the war. The British Museum objected, but feebly.
Nothing happened, but postwar Greece kept up the pressure. In the 1980s, actress Melina Mercouri became minister of culture, using her fame and charisma in a worldwide campaign for the return of the marbles. Work began on a new Acropolis Museum, which will display the marbles remaining in Athens in a replica of their original positions, leaving gaps for the London marbles.
Under attack, official British attitudes stiffened. The British Museum stonewalled behind the argument that its constitution forbade the trustees to give up its possessions. Within hours of Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997, Chris Smith, the first New Labour Culture Secretary, dashed Greek hopes by stating that the return of the marbles was out of the question.
But, offstage, there has been a long series of discreet contacts, especially in the run-up to this summer’s Olympics. The British worry that this dispute could poison not only their relations with Greece but their search for allies within the EU. Neil MacGregor, the new director of the British Museum, still rejects all Greece’s cultural and legal arguments for return, but he is clearly anxious to find a way out of the impasse. A poll commissioned by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles found that 80 per cent of the sample now favours return, a view shared by an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs.
The row has been running for two centuries. The arguments for keeping the marbles in London change all the time, but the arguments for returning them stay much the same. In 1828, a Polish visitor to London, Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, wrote: ‘There [in Athens] everything had its reason for existence and meaning and formed one whole; here everything is in pieces, almost in ruins, without any sense or order. In a word, these remains brought to England are no longer what they were in Greece… where the common people, even through looking at them, developed their taste and perception.’
That remains the core of the returners’ case. The marbles only make sense when they are together in the context of the great building of which they were an integral part, and they are the central symbol of the Greek nation’s identity. The retentionists, on the other hand, have hopped from slogan to slogan. The British Museum’s mission was to keep what it legally held. The Greeks were impostors, barbarian late comers who had nothing to do with the builders of the Parthenon. The Greeks were incapable of looking after their treasures, whereas the museum had cared for them properly. Neither side scores brilliantly on that last one. In 1938, the Elgin Marbles were disastrously scoured with copper tools, while in Greece the early 20th-century restoration of the Parthenon did such appalling damage to the fabric that a 30-year rescue programme is not finished.
What about the fear of many big museums that returning the marbles would unleash a flood of demands for other treasures to be repatriated – London’s Benin bronzes back to West Africa, or Berlin’s Pergamon altar back to Turkey, or Napoleon’s loot in the Louvre back to Venice and Egypt? Richard Allan MP, like the Greeks, insists that the Parthenon is a special case which sets no precedent. The marbles, he says, are not isolated objects, but part of a monument which still exists. It’s as if one of the Stonehenge trilithons had been uprooted and carted off to Paris.
Today, Neil MacGregor mounts two sophisticated defences. One is that the British Museum is a ‘universal’ museum of human civilisation, and that in Greece, the marbles would be reduced to a ‘merely’ national display. The other is that in the British Museum the marbles form part of a total ‘narrative’ of world cultural history, revealing to visitors the connections leading from Mesopotamia and Egypt through Greece to Rome and the Renaissance. MacGregor’s approach is old-fashioned, but serious. It contrasts with that of Dr Dorothy King (who defends the Museum but is not on the staff). With inimitable English rudeness, she told the BBC film-makers that Greeks weren’t fit to be trusted with antiquities. ‘If we knew a woman was abusing her child, we wouldn’t let her adopt another!’
But the current of opinion is still moving against the museum. Among many curators around the world, repatriation is in vogue. The Greeks no longer insist on property rights to the London marbles and suggest that they could be loaned to a part of the Acropolis Museum under British Museum authority. Maybe they could even commute – 10 years in Athens alternating with 10 in London?
When the ‘virtual Parthenon’ museum on the Acropolis is complete, a new situation will exist in which Greece and Britain could invent a solution which humiliates neither side. After all, England has had its turn and sucked its own bizarre identity-juice from these stones. That was long ago, and they do not matter to this culture as they once did. Greece has been very patient, but should now welcome its exiles home.
· The Elgin Marbles is on BBC2 on 26 June