One day, a British government will return the Parthenon marbles to Athens. The only question is: who will get Greece’s eternal credit and thanks?
The obvious candidate was surely Boris Johnson. In 1986, the scholar invited Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri to speak at the University of Oxford, pledging to help her restore the glory of the Parthenon. Yet this week it became another of Johnson’s promises to Don Giovanni – words that only meant back then. Visiting London earlier this week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis challenged him to “think outside the box in terms of global Britannia” and stage a “fantastic coup for public diplomacy”. Johnson claimed the matter belonged to the British Museum and had nothing to do with him.
Anyone who has seen the other half of the Parthenon frieze, now on display in the magnificent Acropolis Museum in Athens, will agree that this greatest of European treasures should not be carved up and divided between Athens and London. It belongs to the place where it was created, radiating in Greek light and laid out in plain sight of its original temple. Half shouldn’t be sitting, icy and out of context, in a dark mausoleum in Bloomsbury.
The Parthenon Marble Saga has recently become enveloped in a larger debate on cultural identity and restitution. The British Museum has long argued, for some time forcefully, that its accumulation of global artifacts over two centuries of the British Empire has delighted and educated tourists to London. The marbles were not looted but were cut from the Acropolis between 1801 and 1805 by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, with the permission of the Turks, then conquerors of Greece. No one asked the Greeks, but otherwise it was legal.
The British Museum now protests that what it has it holds with care. Yes, it almost destroyed the marbles by cleaning them with wire brushes in 1938, but at least they were safe from war and pollution. The whole world can travel to London to see them, rather than traveling to a distant capital of the Balkans, according to the museum; we don’t want to open the floodgates to all the bric-a-brac regimes that seek to strengthen their cultural image by looting London’s basements in search of ancestral objects. Museum curators love the worst-case scenarios.
Yet the world is moving forward. Cultures thirst for their homeland, their setting, their identity. Museums in Africa and Asia are improving. They seek to rediscover and interpret their old stories. Surely we should respect rather than hinder this desire. There may not be rules governing the return of museum objects, but relations between peoples require qualities of courtesy, generosity and common sense.
To be fair, Western museums are reacting. Paris returns the looted objects to Southeast Asia and Senegal. Benin bronzes have been returned to Nigeria from Cambridge, Aberdeen, Germany and France. The British Museum returned royal jewelry to Ceylon in the 1930s and badges to Burma in 1964. It even returned part of the beard of the Sphinx to Egypt. To circumvent the rules prohibiting “opting out”, these measures are often presented as “permanent loans”.
In 1941, during World War II, the British Foreign Office actively considered the return of the Parthenon Marbles as a gesture of support for Greek nationalism, as the war ended. The British Museum has sometimes considered loaning them to Athens for an exhibition, but does not trust the Greeks to return them. Nor is she moved by the Greek offerings of lavish items on loan in return, like the Golden Mask of Agamemnon.
This debate has been further transformed by developments in replication. Computerized 3D printing and engraving, pioneering in Italy and at the Oxford Institute of Digital Archeology, can now recreate ancient buildings and statues with microscopic precision, even using the original stone. There are plans to âreprintâ the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015, and to reproduce tragically lost monuments in Mosul and Nimrud.
The Parthenon marbles could now be reproduced as indistinguishable from the originals, although arrogant art critics may dismiss them as fakes and “not the same.” This then raises the question of which museum, London or Athens, should get the âoriginalsâ – and does it really matter? One can admire as much the second cast of a statue of Rodin or the fourth state of an etching by Rembrandt as a first. We do not care?
To that there is only one answer: let the Greeks care. The missing frieze of the Parthenon in its original state recalls the humiliation of the country by the Turks, and by a British aristocrat. They believe that these stones belong to them, just as the Stone of Scone belongs to Scotland, and Stonehenge “would belong” to all British people, if Emperor Claudius had decided to bring it back to Rome. If Londoners want to experience the aesthetic appeal of Greek sculpture, they can: technology can replicate it for them, as it is now replicating famous statues across Europe. But let the stones return.
This question, so important to the Greeks but not to the British, could be resolved with good will in an instant. It is precisely such a negotiation on the marbles which was requested in September by Unesco and rejected by Great Britain. If it requires a “perpetual loan” or an act of parliament, then go for it. If money is needed, increase it. Johnson struggles to cheat Athens’ claim as not being within his purview. The museum is a state institution. Instead of keeping his promise and doing the right thing by the marbles, he made another U-turn and amused him.