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Time to return the Parthenon Sculptures

As times change & projects such as the New Acropolis Museum are now so far underway, more & more people think that now is the time to reconsider the issue of the Elgin Marbles inside the British Museum.

Boston Globe [1]

Part of the Parthenon

AFTER 200 years in British captivity, it is time for the gods and heroes looted from the Parthenon to return home. The dispute over whether the Seventh Earl of Elgin acted properly when he had the carved marble statues hacked off the temple “for their own protection” in 1801 has enlivened the worlds of arts and politics for decades. The pop star Melina Mercouri’s personal crusade to return the marbles defined her term as Greek minister of culture. Both Keats and Byron waxed poetic upon viewing them. Now, as Athens readies itself to host the 2004 Summer Olympics, the Elgin Marbles should be part of the pomp.

The British Museum, which holds 247 feet of carved frieze and 17 statues, insists it will not return the marbles to Greece, even for a loan. But the Greek government is forging ahead with a $100 million Acropolis museum to house them. As with all things related to the marbles, the museum construction itself is causing controversy, with critics claiming that the site excavation is disturbing other archeological treasures. But the new museum — assuming it is completed on time — should answer a chief claim of the British: that Greece cannot properly care for the marbles.

Questions of provenance are always dicey for erstwhile imperial powers. But no one is saying every treasure acquired under questionable circumstances should be returned to its country of origin. If that were so, most great museums would have to dismantle their collections. Still, some items are so iconic of a culture that they lose meaning when displayed out of context. “We are talking about the greatest national symbol of Greece,” George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, has testified. Sure, Greece has many priceless antiquities, but the works attributed to the sculptor Phidias in the 5th century BC are — at the risk of confusing things with Latin — sui generis.

At a minimum, Britain should entertain a temporary compromise. Perhaps the British Museum could loan the marbles for an agreed period, or perhaps just a selection of the statues could be released. The British have been good stewards, but 21st-century Greece is at least as capable as was 19th-century England. We agree with the sentiments attributed to Sir Roger Casement, an Irish revolutionary about the time of the first world war:

“Give back the marbles, let them vigil keep/

Where art still lies, over Phidias’ tomb, asleep.”