January 18, 2004

Why should the Parthenon Sculptures stay in Britain?

Posted at 2:10 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, predictably argues that the Elgin Marbles ought to stay in Britain.

The Times

January 18, 2004
Oi, hands off our marbles!

The right place for the Elgin marbles is the British Museum, says Neil McGregor, its director, as a campaign is launched to repatriate them
The Parthenon is a ruin, a ruin now in an atmosphere so polluted that no major work of sculpture could responsibly be left attached to it. This may seem self-evident, but in the light of some of the claims and arguments put forward this week about the future of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum it clearly needs to be restated. Since its creation in the 5th century BC, the Parthenon has been a classical temple, a church and a mosque.

In the course of its history the building and its sculptures have suffered greatly. The worst damage was inflicted by a huge explosion caused by a direct hit from Venetian gunfire on an Ottoman Turkish gunpowder dump in 1687. The roof was blown off and the building, which had hitherto been almost complete as a structure, was wrecked.

By the time collectors from western Europe, Elgin one among many, began to arrive in Athens, roughly 50% of the sculptural decoration had already been irretrievably lost. Even if atmospheric conditions allowed it, it would never be possible to reconstitute the great ensemble of sculpture. This is a jigsaw that emphatically cannot be pieced together.

The surviving pieces are now held in 10 European museums — among them the Vatican, the Louvre, Munich, Vienna and Copenhagen — in eight different countries. But the bulk of what survives is more or less equally divided between London and Athens. The details are important. Of the pedimental figures from either end of the Parthenon, parts of some 18 are in Athens, of some 17 in London. Parts of 52 metopes (sculpted panels) are in Athens, parts of 15 in London. Parts of 70 slabs from the famous frieze are in Athens and parts of 58 in London.

But perhaps the most striking difference between the two cities is that everything in the British Museum is permanently on show, free of entry charge, whereas a large proportion of those in Athens have long been in store and unavailable to the public.

Although the Greek authorities have over the years continued Elgin’s work in removing sculpture from the building for safe-keeping, some of the sculptures are still on the Parthenon and at risk from weathering and pollution.

As there can be no question of reconstituting what was once a great aesthetic unity, the only issue now to be debated is what different kinds of public benefit will flow from the different museum contexts in which the pieces are or could be exhibited.

You would hardly have guessed that this was the situation at the lavish PR campaign launched last week under the banner “Marbles Reunited”. All who attended were given presents of T-shirts, ties, mints, jigsaws and a video. No less a figure than Robin Cook called for the sculptures now in the British Museum to be replaced on the Parthenon itself, as though this were even remotely conceivable.

The presence of the former foreign secretary underlines the profound politicisation of what has for long in Britain been essentially a cultural debate. But perhaps not all those present at the press launch realised that it was part of a general election campaign, though not one being fought in Britain. In two months’ time the Greek government faces re-election. It is making the return of sculptures legally owned by the British Museum one of the key issues. That, combined with the approaching Olympic Games in Athens this August, explains the urgency and the stridency of last week’s campaign.

The much-trumpeted opinion poll alleging popular support for an extended loan of the sculptures is seriously misleading. The Greek government’s demand is for permanent return of all the sculptures, not for a loan in the sense that any ordinary person would understand that word. There has never been any question of any piece ever returning to Britain if it is sent to Athens. The Greek government has never made a formal loan request to the British Museum. As the Athens Olympics draws nearer, we can expect the noise level of the campaign to rise yet further.

Robin Cook, however, was perhaps less concerned with the Athens Olympics than with London’s bid to host the games in 2012. He suggested that the removal of the sculptures from the British Museum would materially enhance London’s chances — an astonishing proposal to make. I cannot believe that Cook sincerely thinks that we should start denuding our national collections in order to win foreign support for short-term political objectives.

It is one of the glories of British political tradition that we have always sought to keep culture out of the reach of politicians. The political independence of the trustee museums, firmly established since the 18th century, is a central part of a British tradition of civic liberty.

If politicians are to start putting pressure on trustees in this way, then a very important principle has been lost. The trustee system is independent of government and the trustees have the responsibility of holding the collection for the greatest possible benefit to the widest possible public — and that public, crucially, includes future generations not yet born.

The trustees are obliged by law to decide how to deploy the collection to ensure that it is safe for the future and reaches the greatest number of people now. For that reason the collection of the British Museum has always been open free of charge to visitors from all over the world, and at the moment roughly 4.5m people a year see its contents. Mori visitor surveys consistently show that 55-60% of these visitors visit the Parthenon sculptures and that they are one of the two most popular displays in the collection.

What kind of public benefits can the display of the surviving fragments of the Parthenon decorations bring? That clearly depends on the museum context in which they can be shown.

The 50% of the surviving fragments now in Athens will, when the new museum is finally completed, play a major role in the glorious story of Athenian culture. In London the fragments have long been part of a different, much wider narrative.

In the British Museum the visitor can see how the achievement of 5th century BC Athens could not have been created without the civilisations of Egypt and Assyria, and indeed the great enemy, Persia. But it is perhaps only in the British Museum that the full measure of the Greek achievement can be grasped. Walking through its galleries you can see how the Greek reinvention of the human form changed sculpture from Turkey to India, as well as providing the visual vocabulary for the entire Roman empire.

When the Parthenon sculptures came to London at the beginning of the 19th century, it was the first time they could ever be examined at close quarters. A new phase of their influence began as the whole of western Europe came to admire and discover the perfections of early Greece. The art of Europe and America has been marked by them ever since.

All great works of art are surely the common inheritance of humanity. Great cultural achievements are always indebted to other civilisations and in their turn shape future creation. Like Shakespeare or Beethoven, the art of Greece belongs to all.

This is a truth that it is surely more important to proclaim now than ever before. In a world increasingly fractured by ethnic and religious identities, it is essential that there are places where the great creations of all civilisations can be seen together, and where the visitor can focus on what unites rather than what divides us.

It has always been the purpose of the British Museum to foster that notion of global citizenship and it is for that reason that its trustees believe that the display of the Parthenon sculptures in the museum confers the richest possible public benefit to visitors now and in the future. We hope that the Greek government may one day recognise this too.
Amit Lennon

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