For almost 40 years, the Parthenon Marbles, or Elgin Marbles as they are also known, have been at the centre of the great restitution debate. Taken from Greece in contested circumstances by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, the marble sculptures that were part of the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis are housed in the British Museum. UK law prevents the museum from giving away objects in its collection, but the organisation’s chair, former chancellor George Osborne, is said to be in talks to loan the statues to Greece long term in exchange for other ancient artworks.
So should the marbles go back?
Of course, cry the voices calling for restitution. As Evangelos Kyriakidis, director of The Heritage Management Organisation puts it: ‘It’s sovereignty. Having a Greek national symbol in a museum called the British Museum is totally wrong. It’s as if the Crown Jewels were in Greece.’ Whether or not Lord Elgin acquired them legally, the Parthenon Marbles were taken without the consent of the Greek people and returning them would give a huge boost to Greek cultural identity. And let’s face it, there isn’t very much that’s British in the British Museum – the very name smacks of an imperialist mindset that was all too eager to snaffle up the artefacts of other cultures to put on show in the heart of the Empire. In addition, Greece has now created proper conditions for the marbles’ display and preservation in its purpose-built gallery in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. No one who has visited this museum and seen the stark white plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London interspersed among the original pieces Elgin left behind could fail to acknowledge that Athens is where these outstanding sculptures belong. Britain should agree to replace the marbles with high-tech 3-D printed replicas and send the originals back to Greece.
But that argument entails all kinds of suppositions about ownership that simply don’t apply to the Parthenon Marbles, argue those who think the sculptures should remain. They have been in London for so long and inspired so many generations of British artists and historians that they could as easily be said to belong culturally to Britain as to Greece. But many would go further and say that they belong to the world. They are human history, not stones to be traded around. And in that context the British Museum – the embodiment of ‘the universal museum’ – is the perfect institution to house them, a place where they can be admired in the context of other civilisations and seen by many more than would ever visit them in Athens.