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Another review of Dorothy King’s book on the Parthenon Marbles

This review of Dorothy King’s book, The Elgin Marbles, echoes the comments of previous reviewers [1] who are left unconvinced by the arguments that she puts forward about why the sculptures should remain in Britain.

The Guardian [2]

Acropolis now
Dorothy King takes a dim view of arguments for restitution in her history of archaeology’s greatest controversy, The Elgin Marbles. Jane Morris isn’t convinced
Saturday February 11, 2006
The Guardian

The Elgin Marbles: The Story of the Parthenon and Archaeology’s Greatest Controversy
by Dorothy King
352pp, Hutchinson, £18.99

In 1799 Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th of Kincardine, set foot in Constantinople. Elgin was the new British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, which then included Athens. His job was to try to forge links with the Ottomans, but he had other, private motives. Elgin had his eye on the numerous treasures from antiquity that were firing the popular imagination. Initially, he intended merely to record these, and took a team of artists with him. But he soon realised his contacts meant he could get permission from the Ottomans to remove pieces back to London. In 1801 his staff started to chisel off the first Parthenon sculpture from the ruins on the Acropolis, from where they were ultimately shipped to the British Museum.

And so began what Dorothy King rightly calls archaeology’s greatest controversy. It has been going on for almost 200 years, with various degrees of fervour, and never more than since the 2004 Athens Olympics and the planned construction of a new Acropolis museum. The Greek government duly reiterated its claim against the British Museum for the return of the marbles, and the British Museum duly resisted.

This restitution debate is one in which names, Elgin or Parthenon, tend to indicate which side you are on. King, a thirtysomething archaeologist being promoted by her publishers as archaeology’s answer to Nigella Lawson and Charlie Dimmock, has already stirred up controversy with her willingness to criticise the Greek position. So it is no surprise to find her taking a dim view of the arguments of the Greek government and others who press for the marbles’ restitution.

Much of the debate centres on a tit-for-tat rehash of historic rights and wrongs, particularly the motives of Elgin and the subsequent care of the pieces in the British Museum, contrasted with those pieces left in Athens. You either see Elgin as a cultural vandal, as Byron did, or, as King argues, a gentleman who believed he was saving the sculptures from destruction by the Turks and the indifference of the Greeks who no longer cared for the glories of their past.

As for what might have happened had Elgin left the marbles alone, we have to look to the pieces remaining in Greece today. Professor Anthony Snodgrass (pro-return) has argued that the pieces are in good condition, but King asserts that they are not, with many sitting in storage and others awaiting conservation. In 1998, the Greek government took the British Museum to task after it emerged that in the 1930s the marbles suffered abrasive cleaning (a claim the British Museum had previously ignored). King points out the rarely mentioned fact that at the time this was a standard treatment, accepted by countries including Greece and Italy.

What is missing from the book is a theoretical assessment of the position today. Few people believe that the marbles would not be well cared for by Greek museum curators. But do you do more justice to the marbles in a new, transparent museum in view of the Acropolis, showing the pieces as architectural as well as sculptural objects and in the place of their creation? Or are they better displayed in London, divorced from their original context, but with collections from other civilisations to provide points of contrast and reference? Unlike King, I believe the former – but I can’t pretend, given that I live in London, that I don’t get a selfish pleasure from seeing them whenever I like, alongside a host of other wonderful artefacts.

Of course, any return of the marbles has wider implications. The marbles are not, as some people claim, a unique case. Several major western museums face claims for artefacts from other countries or special interest groups. Much of this material was collected in imperial or colonial eras in ways that would not be acceptable today.

Put simply, should western museums hold fast to their Enlightenment principles, putting all the world’s treasures under one (rather narrow) roof, or can they accept more pluralist interpretations and competing claims on the materials? It is a debate which, in a quieter way, is deeply exercising many curators and archaeologists – and not just in London or Athens. Few now accept a position of no-return-ever of all cultural goods. As this book shows, the story of the Parthenon marbles is one that, on close inspection, frequently generates more heat than light. Disinterested parties are either fascinated or wearied by the plethora of half-truths, exaggerations and prejudice that colours the more passionate arguments. One day, someone will write a book that exposes the holes in the arguments and the good and bad behaviour on all sides in this multi-act drama. But this book, enjoyable as it is in parts, isn’t it. Jane Morris is a former editor of Museums Journal.
To order The Elgin Marbles for £17.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.