October 17, 2007

Should we give the Parthenon marbles back?

Posted at 2:02 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Prompted by the move of the first sculptures to the New Acropolis Museum, the Guardian revisits the question of whether or not the British Museum should return those held in their collection.

The Guardian

Should we give the Parthenon marbles back?
Stephen Moss
Tuesday October 16, 2007

If only we’d listened to Byron, what a lot of trouble over the Elgin/Parthenon marbles would have been saved. “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/By British hands …” he wrote in Childe Harold. Two centuries on, the Parthenonites are still weeping, the Elginites still clinging on to the sculptures that Lord Elgin took from the Parthenon in the first decade of the 19th century.

The Parthenonites reckon the opening of the Acropolis Museum will clinch the argument. “There can no longer be any question about where or how the marbles should be displayed,” says Eleni Cubitt, secretary of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. The new museum, she says, will allow the sculptures to be seen as they were intended – as a single work of art.

But the British Museum, which claims ownership of the parts of the frieze taken by Elgin, is unmoved. “The new museum doesn’t change anything,” says communications manager Hannah Boulton. “The purpose of the British Museum is to present an overview of world civilisations, and the Parthenon sculpture is an integral part of that. In Greece the sculptures tell a story about the growth of Athenian democracy. Here, we can see the sculptures in a worldwide context.”

The BM no longer suggests the Greeks would be unable to safeguard the marbles. Nor does it deploy the old argument that if the marbles were sent back, the Egyptians would want their mummies, too. The argument now is over context – local v general. The Elginites say that, by splitting the sculptures, we can have both. The argument is subtle, but wrong-headed. Byron was right, and it’s time to fill in the gaps the Greeks are so tellingly leaving in their new museum.

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