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Spurious arguments about the Elgin Marbles

The author of this article from the Daily Telegraph clearly seen no reason to congratulate the Greeks on the opening of the New Acropolis Museum. Instead, there arguments fall back on old tired incorrect statements about the Parthenon Sculptures.

To correct a few of the most heinous inaccuracies.

  1. Far more than one or two British journalists have written positive articles having seen the New Acropolis Museum – in some cases those who previously objected strongly to the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Whether or not these trips were subsidised is irrelevant – some journalists have a level of integrity that the author of this piece clearly does not understand.
  2. Elgin paid only very small amounts to acquire the Elgin Marbles – most of the cost was in shipping them back to Britain once they had been removed.
  3. As Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the Marbls had dubious legal standing, then it follows that this liability is passed on to Parliament when they purchased the artefacts
  4. The British Government purchased the Marbles through an Acto of Parliament – if there as the political will to do so, then returning them using a similar method should not present a major challenge
  5. Lord Elgin did not act to save the Marbles – from letters he sent, it is clear that his original intention was to use them as decoration on his new home that was being built at Broomhall
  6. It is unclear to anyone apart from the British Museum why the number of visitors who see something & the cost that they pay to see it should be the two most important factors in deciding an artefacts location. These facts are regularly stated, but I have never seen any real justification behind them to suggest how they actually back up the argument for restitution in any way.

These are but a few of the errors.

For a major newspaper to publish an article so full of inaccuracies merely damages its own reputation.

Daily Telegraph [1]

The Elgin Marbles will never return to Athens – the British Museum is their rightful home
The Greeks should erect a statue of Lord Elgin near the Parthenon to express their nation’s gratitude to him for saving the Marbles.
By Richard Dorment
Published: 4:39PM BST 30 Jun 2009

Having built this new museum for the Elgin Marbles, the Greeks have managed to rustle up one or two British journalists credulous or naïve enough to write articles calling for their return. But if anyone thinks the building is ever going to house anything other than the plaster casts that are on display there now, they are hopelessly out of touch with reality. There is virtually no chance that the director or trustees of the British Museum, now or in the future, will comply with this outlandish demand.

Let’s review the facts. Lord Elgin paid the enormous sum of £39,000 to acquire the marbles, and was careful to obtain documents from the Turkish Government approving their removal from Greece, which had then been part of the Ottoman Empire for 350 years. Since Parliament legally purchased the marbles from Lord Elgin in 1816, the British Museum’s title to them is unassailable. The Greeks know this perfectly well – otherwise, instead of pulling this PR stunt, they would be suing Britain in the European courts.

What those calling for the return of the marbles can’t seem to get through their heads is that, even if it wished to, the British Government cannot simply transfer their ownership to another European state. Objects in our national museums belong in law not to parliament but to their trustees. This ensures that no government can sell works from our museums to raise revenue (as happened in Russia in the 1920s), or give them away for short- term political advantage. Were the trustees of the British Museum to comply with the Greek proposal, they would be in breach of their obligation to use the objects in their care for maximum public benefit, and could therefore expect a lawsuit of their own from members of the public, such as me, compelling them to fulfil the trust that was placed in them when they were appointed.

So here are a few ideas for the Greeks: first, why not erect a statue of Lord Elgin near the Parthenon to express their nation’s gratitude to him for saving the marbles? After the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1458, the Turks used the Parthenon as a mosque and then as a powder magazine. In 1687, when the building took a direct hit from a Venetian cannon, 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. Turkish soldiers used the marbles for target practice, and the locals burned statues to make lime for the mortar to build their houses. His purchase of the marbles was motivated by the real risk to their survival.

Second, instead of whining about events that happened more than two centuries ago, perhaps the Greek ambassador should formally thank Britain for displaying the marbles in those beautiful galleries at the British Museum, where 4.6 million visitors a year from all over the world can view them free of charge.

Of course that won’t happen, because the “controversy” over the marbles is largely a matter of Greek politics. Remember that until very recently, it had not seriously occurred to anyone that they should be given back to Greece. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the defining element in Greek identity was membership in the Greek Orthodox Church. When in the 1980s the socialist minister of culture Melina Mercouri noisily campaigned for the return of the marbles, the actress skilfully turned them into a symbol of Greek identity. Since her time, no Greek politician has ever lost a vote echoing her demand. But the marbles no more “belong” to Greece than do the plays of Euripides.

Let the new museum stand as a monument to the futility of cultural nationalism — in this case trying to claim back something that by now belongs to the whole world.