January 21, 2004

Is the campaign for the return of the Marbles “ill informed”?

Posted at 1:28 pm in Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited

This article seems to dwell too much on the effort Elgin made to remove the marbles from Athens, rather than the simpler (& more relevant question) of what is the right thing to do now.

Daily Telegraph

This marbles madness
(Filed: 21/01/2004)

A new bid to return the Elgin marbles to Greece is ill-informed and has appalling implications for all our museums, says Richard Dorment

Anyone can understand why a patriotic Greek might want the Elgin marbles returned to Athens. It is a harder to fathom the motivation of British supporters of what, on the face of it, is a hopeless cause.

Credulous, idealistic or simply out of touch with reality, many are romantics smitten with the idea that the marbles can somehow be “returned” to the Parthenon, which is in fact a total ruin. Not perhaps realising that half of the Parthenon sculptures have been lost for ever, and that surviving sections are now in 10 museums in eight countries, they imagine that, if only Britain would co-operate with Greece, the frieze could somehow be reconstructed.

Their activities have always seemed harmless enough, but, with the launch last week of a new campaign called “The Marbles Reunited”, led by Professor Anthony Snodgrass and supported by the politician Robin Cook, a new tactic is being employed to gain what the lobbyists want: spin.

“Marbles Reunited” is not like previous campaigns. Orchestrated by a lavishly funded PR firm, it has not hesitated to use evasions and half-truths in an attempt to manipulate British public opinion on this issue.

To counter their obfuscation, let me begin with a very brief history of the controversy.

Built between 447 and 438 BC, for 1,000 years the Parthenon was used as a temple of goddess Athena. When it became a Christian church in the 5th century, most of the east pediment was destroyed. After the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1458, the Turks used it as a mosque and then as a powder magazine.

In 1687, when the building took a direct hit from a Venetian canon, most of its interior walls were destroyed, bringing much of the frieze down with them. By the time Lord Elgin became ambassador to Istanbul in 1798, the Parthenon was a ruin, with Turkish soldiers using the marbles for target practice, and local people burning pieces of statues to make lime for mortar. Lord Elgin’s purchase of the marbles was motivated by the real risk to their survival if left in situ.

He spent the colossal sum of £39,000 of his own money on the acquisition, transport to London and care of the marbles, and obtained documents from the Turkish government approving their removal from Greece. Since Parliament legally purchased the marbles from Lord Elgin in 1816, the British Museum’s title to them is unassailable.

Last week, Mr Cook airily dismissed all this as an “arcane dispute over legal title to the Parthenon Marbles”, but he must know perfectly well that no court in Europe would question the legality of the BM’s possession of them.

And, even if it wished to, the British government could not simply transfer ownership of the marbles to another European state. Unlike in Greece, we operate an “arm’s length” policy, whereby the objects in our national museums belong in law not to parliament but to their trustees.

This ensures that a government cannot sell works from our museums to raise revenue, or give them away for short-term political advantage – which, as we shall see, is precisely what Mr Cook proposes to do. What is more, were the trustees of the BM to comply with such an outlandish scheme, they would be in breach of their obligation to use the objects in their care for the maximum public benefit.

Faced with this reality, the lobbyists working for “The Marbles Reunited” have now come up with what they call the “Greek Proposal” – that the marbles be “loaned” to Athens but that Britain would “retain ownership” of them.

In fact, the new formula is a smokescreen. The Greeks are not asking for a loan in the ordinary sense. They want the marbles to remain permanently in Athens. They are now building a new museum to house them – on an archaeological site so important for the study of Byzantine civilisation that the Greek supreme court has twice declared its construction illegal, only to be overruled by the government.

This is where the story gets ugly. With breathtaking cheek, the PR company fighting the campaign in this country has conducted a public opinion poll, which they claim shows that an impressive 73 per cent of the British people are in favour of returning the marbles to Greece.

But wait. Just look at how the survey formulates the crucial question: “Do you agree or disagree that the British Museum should allow the Elgin Marbles to be reunited and displayed again in Athens, Greece, where they come from?” What reasonable person would not agree to such a proposal? No hint here that one of this country’s most important artistic treasures, works of art that have been seen by visitors from all over the world and that have inspired British artists and writers for two centuries, would be lost to us for ever.

Yet, brandishing the results of this dubious opinion poll in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cook has the audacity to claim that it “confirms public support for restoring the Marbles to Greece” and calls on the trustees of the BM not to “defy the wishes of the British people” in this matter. Thank goodness that the duty of the BM’s trustees is not to follow opinion polls but to fulfil their fiduciary duty.

But the disingenuous methods used by the pollsters render the survey’s results utterly worthless. And the nauseating campaign video, which has been sent to thousands of people, is an even more outrageous travesty of the truth.

To take a few examples, the term used for the proposed permanent restitution of the marbles to Greece is “extended display” in Athens. It uses the words “stolen by the British” to describe Elgin’s legitimate purchase of the marbles, and characterises as “plunder” the works of art he in fact saved. Our ill-informed former foreign secretary even claims that Elgin “dismantled the Acropolis” in an “act of vandalism”.

The “Greek Proposal” piously calls for the “two-way traffic” of antiquities between Greece and Great Britain – but only in exchange for the marbles. Since the Greek government has ruled out any form of compromise with the BM, it has made any serious discussion about the marbles impossible. Their attitude is very different from that of the Egyptians, who recently confirmed that they wish merely to borrow the Rosetta Stone for a few months for the opening of a new national museum.

What is more, the interest and significance of the Parthenon marbles is actually enhanced by being displayed in the BM, where 4.6 million visitors a year can view them without cost.

In Athens, the surviving fragments of the Parthenon tell one story: that of the art and culture of ancient Greece. In the BM, they tell many stories, and not only about Greece but about the whole of Western civilisation and its relationship to Eastern cultures.

By walking a few steps from the Duveen Galleries, where the marbles are so beautifully shown, for example, we can see how profoundly the sculptors who carved them were influenced by Assyrian, Persian and Egyptian art. Without having to leave the building, we can see how much Western architects, artists and sculptors learned from the Greeks. Surely it is the whole purpose of great museums to show these appropriations.

And, from a purely British perspective, the marbles are particularly important since our artists – among them William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederic Leighton – owe so much to the presence of the marbles in this country.

Finally, I come to the nastiest part of this new campaign, the attempt to link the issue both to this summer’s Olympic games in Athens and to Britain’s bid to host the games in 2012.

The Olympics are not supposed to be used for political ends. But the Greek government is deliberately using the games for a political purpose in a way that has not happened so blatantly since Berlin in 1936.

In his article in the Evening Standard, Mr Cook bared his teeth. Hand over the marbles, he wrote, or “every Olympic dignitary” will be “shepherded by their Greek hosts around the new Acropolis Museum with a long blank wall where the Elgin Marbles should be”.

Then, in a direct threat to the trustees of the BM, he warned: “Nor would wise trustees want to risk being seen to undermine London’s bid to host the Olympics.” In other words, in exchange for the possibility that London might host a few weeks of sporting events and so gain votes for the Labour party, he wants the trustees to give away one of the most glorious work of art in this country.

This whole campaign is sheer lunacy. If by some remote chance these people were to succeed in their aims, just think of the flood of claims for restitution of art back to Italy or the Netherlands. Our museums would be emptied within a decade.

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