June 13, 2012

Stephen Fry: “It would be a ‘classy’ move for Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles”

Posted at 12:46 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

Some press coverage of the Intelligence Squared Parthenon Marbles debate that took place on Monday.

BBC News

11 June 2012 Last updated at 22:30
Stephen Fry’s Parthenon Marbles plea backed in debate vote
By Trevor Timpson BBC News

A call backed by actor Stephen Fry for the return to Greece of the British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles has come out on top in a debate held in London.

Fry said it would be a “classy” move to restore the sculptures brought to the UK by Lord Elgin in the 19th Century.

The debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared, ended with a majority for the motion of 384 to 125.

Opposing the motion, Tristram Hunt MP said the British Museum played a key role in cosmopolitan culture.

The Greeks were a proud people suffering terribly, Stephen Fry told the audience in London’s Cadogan Hall, but “no matter how much the sovereign debt crisis means they owe us, we will never repay the debt that we owe Greece.”

He said he revered the British Museum as “one of the great flowerings of the Enlightenment” but that returning the Marbles to Greece would be an act of “grace and decency”.

He said it would be “classy” if future visitors to the British Museum could see a “Parthenon experience” including a film showing how Britain had curated the marbles “beautifully” for 200 years and then handed them over to Athens’ Acropolis Museum.

Mr Hunt supported the argument advanced by the British Museum, which says there is a need for collections like its own which allows many different cultures to be compared.

The museum says the division of the sculptures between London and Athens “allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance within world culture and affirming the place of Ancient Greece among the great cultures of the world.”

It should be a source of pride to the Greeks that the sculptures, as a symbol of Greek culture, were such an important part of the British Museum’s collection where it could be compared with exhibits from other civilisations, said Mr Hunt.

He feared that restoring the Marbles could lead to a “purge” of museums in which “tit-for-tat recoveries” of objects by their countries of origin would lead to a “global loss of appreciation and understanding”.

He said the Marbles had been legally acquired with a permit from the Ottoman empire and the Greek government had never challenged their ownership in an international court.

But Stephen Fry said the argument did not apply because Greece was an occupied country at the time.

Proposing the motion to send the sculptures back, Andrew George MP said it may be that Elgin helped preserve the sculptures, but that job was done now.

He said he was “appealing to Britain’s better instincts” and that restoring the sculptures willingly now would be better than a “cringing climb-down” some time in the future.

The debate comes a week before an “International Colloquy” in London on the Parthenon sculptures in London, organised by the British, US and Australian committees calling for their return to Greece. Those attending will hold a “planned organized attendance” at the British Museum on 20 June.

Recordings of the debate will be broadcast on BBC World News at 09:10 and 21:10 on 30 June, and 02:10 and 15:10 on 1 July. All times GMT.

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  1. david nystuen said,

    06.14.12 at 1:48 pm

    Leave them in London. If one looks at the news at all, you can quickly see that Greece is unable at this time to care for large portions of their heritage. They were saved once, why chance having to do so the second time.

  2. Matthew said,

    06.14.12 at 1:54 pm

    Even those who argue to keep them in the British Museum now admit that Greece is just as capable of looking after them as Britain is.

    People fall back on the excuse that the time is not right now – but once that problem goes, will have another reason instead to justify why they can’t be returned.

  3. Bob Coldwell said,

    06.15.12 at 3:32 am

    No matter how seedy the deal; the Elgin marbles appear to have been purchased legally. If then they are returned to their place of origin would this not act as a precedent for the return of almost everything else in the museum to its original homeland? How could anyone argue against it?

  4. Matthew said,

    06.15.12 at 7:53 am

    But the deal was made with the Ottomans – who were considered an occupying power at the time. Only a few years later, England supported the Greeks in their campaign for independence (thereby acknowledging that the Ottomans weren’t the legitimate rulers of the area). In effect, the situation is not that dis-similar to purchasing loot from the Nazis.

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