January 15, 2004

Return the Parthenon Sculptures for the Olympics

Posted at 2:02 pm in Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited

Robin Cook, who has just launched the Marbles Reunited campaign, writes about why now is the ideal time for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece.

The Scotsman

Thu 15 Jan 2004
Olympic bid is perfect time to return Elgin Marbles

YESTERDAY, Marbles Reunited was launched by a number of British citizens who believe that the proper place for the Parthenon Marbles is back at the Acropolis, where they stood for 2,000 years until Lord Elgin pulled them down. The campaign starts with the favourable wind in its sails of an opinion poll that confirms public support by a wide margin for restoring the Marbles to Athens.

That should prompt some serious heart-searching among the trustees of the British Museum. It is one thing for them to resist demands of Greek governments. It is quite another for them to defy the wishes of the British people, on whose behalf they act as trustees.

Nor would wise trustees want to risk being seen to undermine London’s bid to host the Olympics. This is the year the games return to Greece, and that will also be the moment when lobbying gets under way for the venue for 2012.

What a dramatic launch-pad it would be for London’s bid if Tessa Jowell, as minister for both heritage and sport, could demonstrate Britain’s cultural co-operation by announcing that the Parthenon Marbles would also be coming home to Greece.

By contrast, what a disastrous start to the London campaign it will be if at Athens every Olympic dignitary is shepherded by their Greek hosts around the new Acropolis Museum, with a long blank wall where the Elgin Marbles should be.

Whatever arcane dispute there may be over who had legal title to the Parthenon Marbles, there is no denying that they belong in Athens. The panels were designed to be an integral part of the Parthenon and are best appreciated in the setting of the Acropolis.

The building was erected as the most sacred temple of Athens, and the panels provide an extended frieze of the ancient religious rites. It is this unity of site and sculptures that makes the case for returning the Marbles so compelling and unique. Moreover, tourists will be able to take pride in visiting an annexe of the British Museum, because the latest proposal would leave the Marbles under the ownership of the British Museum.

Many top museums are now developing an international dimension to their work through an overseas annexe. The American Guggenheim and the Russian Hermitage have both opened foreign annexes.

It is not as if Athens is in the back of beyond. Greece is displacing Spain as the number-one holiday destination of British tourists. It is perfectly possible that, displayed alongside the top tourist draw in all Greece, the Parthenon Marbles will still be seen each year by just as many British people. In return, Greece would mount in London a rotating exhibition of sculptures and archaeological finds that have never before been seen in Britain, nor indeed outside Greece.

It would be an honourable close to a chapter that opened with a dishonourable act of vandalism. Lord Elgin’s sole authority for dismantling the Acropolis was a firman from the Turkish sultan to whom he had been appointed British ambassador. It was not conduct we would condone today.

While foreign secretary, I would have taken a dim view of any of my ambassadors who abused their access to acquire possessions from the priceless heritage of unoccupied territory. Nor would any of them have dreamed of doing so.

The best that could be said for Elgin is that he removed the Marbles from what was then a war zone and took them in trust for their own protection. But that defence has evaporated with time. Modern Greece is a stable country and our partner in the EU. The gallery it is building as a safe home for the Parthenon Marbles is a state-of-the-art design prepared by a world-renowned architect. Even Lord Elgin himself, if he were alive, might recognise that there is no longer any reason why the friezes should not be reunited at the Acropolis.

The refuge of successive British governments on this issue has been to shelter behind the legal nicety that the Marbles are under the ownership of the British Museum. That is technically correct, but does not absolve government from promoting the public interest and speaking up for opinion.

It is time the British government accepted that returning the Marbles, in exchange for a world-class exhibition of Greek antiquities in Britain, would be good for the British Museum, good for London and excellent for our Olympic bid.

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