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Greece’s tactics on the Elgin Marbles

Whilst many have praised the New Acropolis Museum, others feel that Greece is making the wrong approach with their attempts to secure the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum.

I have to say that I don’ particularly agree with the basis of this article – the author suggests that the British Museum has moved on the issue whereas Greece hasn’t, but all indications that I have seen have suggested the opposite. Greece has built the New Acropolis Museum, removing one of the old arguments, whilst under the previous PASOK government, statements were made regarding what the Greek offer would be to the British Museum in exchange for the Marbles. Throughout this process, the British Museum has remained resolutely silent on the issue, refusing to engage in proper debate, instead only raising their head from the sand for long enough to state that despite these new initiatives their position on the Marbles remains unchanged. Furthermore, it has to be acknowledged that the whole universal museum argument is a sham. It was never mentioned anywhere until the start of this decade – coincidentally this tied in with dropping any arguments about the Greeks having no museum in which to put the marbles if they were returned – quite possibly this only appeared because they had to have a new argument for their position to remain remotely tenable once the New Acropolis Museum was built.

Bloomberg News [1]

Greeks Should Stop Wasting Energy Moaning About Elgin Marbles
Commentary by Martin Gayford

June 23 (Bloomberg) — Far be it from me to advise Greek ministers. Nevertheless, they are getting their tactics wrong over the interminable saga of the Elgin Marbles.

The question of the sculptures, around 50 percent of which were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin and are now in the British Museum, has been revived by the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens last weekend. Once more the Greeks are calling for the carvings to be returned.

Such demands have been made before, interminably. They haven’t been heeded in the past, and are unlikely to be fulfilled in the future either.

The only real change in decades is that the British Museum has opened up a negotiating position on the issue. Two years ago, in an interview I conducted for Bloomberg News, the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, said that in principle any work in the collection might be loaned to another institution, for example, for an exhibition.

He also said, though, that the British Museum could hardly lend anything to a party that refused to acknowledge that the London gallery owned the item in the first place. It’s a neat legal point — a reminder that before he became an art historian, MacGregor practiced law.

Opening Move

It’s also, obviously, an opening offer, one that was repeated recently by a British Museum spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton: Admit that the museum has legal title to the marbles, and then reciprocal loans can be considered.

The Greek response was obdurate.

“The government, as any other Greek government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer,” Culture Minister Antonis Samaras was quoted as saying by the British Broadcasting Corp. “This is because accepting it would legalize the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.”

Well, yes it would. That’s the point. In any dispute such as this something is going to have to give before a resolution can emerge. No argument goes on for this long — it has been simmering for around 200 years now — without both sides having a certain amount of justice in their cause. Let’s grant the Greeks that.

The weak point of their case, though, is that it’s based on old-fashioned nationalism. It implies that the marbles only truly make sense in a Greek context, and fails to acknowledge the role of a world museum, such as the British Museum (or the Metropolitan, the Hermitage and the Louvre).

Global Showcase

Such places aren’t just repositories of colonial loot — though they are that, we may as well admit — they are an opportunity to see human culture on a global basis. At the British Museum, Greek sculpture can be compared and contrasted with Egyptian, Aztec, African and Middle Eastern art in a way it never could in Athens.

That’s why the British Museum is never going to start dismantling its collection and sending it back whence it came. On the other hand, it’s exactly because it sees itself as having such a global role that the museum under MacGregor is open to sharing what it has with other institutions in other places.

If the Greeks were shrewd, they’d make a counteroffer: “OK, we’ll accept that you have title to these things. In exchange, we’d like the frieze for, say, the next five years and we’ll lend something to you in return.” That would put the British Museum on the spot, and real discussions could begin. It’s the only way this ancient archaeological feud will ever be settled. Otherwise, the Greeks are wasting their breath.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)