January 13, 2004

Should Lord Elgin’s actions be praised

Posted at 1:56 pm in Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited

Predictably, the Daily Telegraph suggests that the Parthenon Marbles only exist because of the selfless actions of Lord Elgin in rescuing them. I’m not sure how the surviving sculptures in Athens fit into this theory however.

Daily Telegraph

Tuesday 13 January 2004
Give Elgin his due and Athens the Marbles
By Jim White
(Filed: 12/01/2004)

The woman in the information centre when I was in Athens recently was very keen to know my nationality.

“Are you British?” she said, after I asked her in English for a tourist map. I said I was.

“In that case,” she said, “we have special ones for you.”

And she pulled from a pile under her desk a publication similar in every way to that offered to American, Australian and Canadian visitors to her wonderful city. Except, instead of a picture of the Acropolis on the front cover, the version for Brits had a lengthy essay which was no more than a vituperative assault on our nation.

Words like “theft”, “scandal”, “disgrace” and “illegitimacy” oozed from the prose. The subject that had provoked the writer’s ire was the Parthenon Sculptures, plucked from atop the Acropolis and brought over to this country by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1807. The piece ended with a demand that they be returned to the world’s most spectacular ruin, immediately. If not before.

“The Olympic Games are to be staged in their ancestral home in 2004,” concluded the map’s lecture. “What better opportunity could Britain have to do the right thing and restore these stolen goods?”

This week, it is the turn of a British-based initiative to join the fray, a campaign seeking the return of the artwork in time for the quadrennial festival of chucking, running and dodging dope tests. Calling itself Marbles Reunited, it sounds like a website that helps restore faculties to the unhinged. Yet, at its launch on Wednesday, it will boast the support of a range of luminaries running from Bill Clinton, through Ken Livingstone to Sir Sean Connery.

And none of them, not one of them, would be sufficiently lacking in sensitivity to call the object of their campaign the Elgin Marbles. No, no, no: these are the Parthenon Sculptures. One supporter told me that to refer to them as the Elgin Marbles would be like describing the Great Train Robbery as Biggs’s Haul, or the Brink’s Mat heist as Ken Noye’s gold.

“He was a thief,” they added. “Why should we celebrate a thief?”

Poor old Elgin, the most maligned conservationist in history. He lost his nose in his lifetime and has systematically lost his reputation in death, to the point that his name has now become a swearword for some. Mind you, his PR wasn’t that great when he was still around, popping Greek masonry into tea chests. Byron, Elgin’s contemporary and fellow Hellenist, was even more scathing about him than Athens’s

21st-century map-makers. In Childe Harold, Byron wrote of the Parthenon: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/ By British hands.”

As it happens, Byron stopped blubbing long enough to carve his own initials on the temple walls. But hey, what’s a bit of hypocrisy when there’s a legend to construct? Wandering through the British Museum last week, looking at the wonders in the position they have occupied ever since Elgin sold them to the nation to pay off his debts, it was intriguing to note that his lordship’s name is not much mentioned here, either. As if, a bit like Christmas in Birmingham, the nomenclature might offend. Mind you, an Australian couple I spoke to didn’t need any hint of Elgin to climb aboard their moral high horse.

“It’s all been nicked this stuff, it’s a disgrace,” the woman said, in a manner so affronted it can’t be long before she starts a campaign to repatriate that sizeable chunk of Aussie’s heritage which has long resided here, called Rolf Reunited. And a rather sheepish guide whom I followed, taking a party of young Spaniards round the gallery, merely told them that Greece wanted the marbles back, the Government was as yet not convinced and that “the debate continues”. Elgin was brushed over.

But the unpalatable truth for any Byron-inspired anti-Elginite is that, without his lordship, there probably wouldn’t be much in the way of marbles to campaign about. When Elgin first went to Athens, his intention was simply to make a plaster cast of the sculptures. He did so, but, when he returned to do more a couple of years later, he discovered that the Ottoman rulers of the city were so sluttish about its statuary, letting whoever fancied have a bit, that several heads, hands and feet that were there on his previous visit had gone. He decided that the only way to preserve their beauty intact was to remove as much as he could to the only place where they might be looked after. Elgin was the hero of the marbles: he wanted them kept together.

Which is why I got the feeling that, if his lordship had been able to do what I did and had walked round the British Museum’s grand galleries and seen for himself the marbles there, he would agree with me: the current display is not adequate. Nothing to do with the way the BM shows them, which is clear, approachable and, unlike the Acropolis, free to enter. What did it was the label under one decapitated horseman which read: “The head is in a museum in Athens.” Next to it was another: “Part of this statue is in Copenhagen.” And so on down the line.

It really is about time for the bickering to stop and the jigsaw to be put back together, giving everyone the chance to see what worshippers at the temple saw 2,500 years ago. It doesn’t much matter where they reside once completed, but the state-of-the-art museum at the Acropolis in Olympic year would not be a bad place to start. And then, back together again, they could be sent round the world in 2007 to mark the anniversary of Elgin’s rescue.

It would be a fitting tribute to a man who deserves to be remembered as far more than the pantomime villain on a tourist map.

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