From the very beginning, Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon’s statues and friezes caused something of a discursive British civil war. On one side were humanists, like Lord Byron; on the other were Empire apologists, who defend Elgin’s actions and support the British Museum’s inalienable property rights to the artefacts it, eventually, purchased from him.
Over the last few years, the people of Britain are increasingly falling on the side of Lord Byron — who, in 1812, mourned the Parthenon’s sorry post-Elgin look: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see. Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed.” According to successive YouGov polls, a clear majority of Britons want to see the Parthenon artefacts displayed in the magnificent New Acropolis Museum, in a special hall overlooking the defaced Parthenon.
Alas, the British government and Elgin’s surviving supporters are resisting tooth and nail, insisting that the Parthenon artefacts in the British Museum are its property and must remain so eternally. Their claim to legal property rights is both tendentious and detrimental to the British sense of justice. They point out that Elgin had a permit from the Ottoman occupying forces in Athens to take what he liked from the Acropolis — which, they insist, gave him the right to own and to sell on whatever he removed. Even if we set aside the fact that said Ottoman permit never granted Elgin permission to hack the statues and friezes from the monument with the use of saws, the claim is absurd and, indeed, quite dangerous.
Imagine if the Nazi occupying forces in Paris had granted some gentleman a permit to remove statues from the Louvre. Or if Putin’s men in Mariupol were, today, to grant a visiting antiquities dealer a permit to remove priceless artefacts from a local museum. The very notion that these permits bestow secure property rights over the removed artefacts is an affront to every decent person worldwide. As for the British establishment’s usual rejoinder — that the Ottoman occupation of Greece was centuries long, or that Greece had not been a modern nation-state before the Ottomans invaded it — it is terribly disrespectful to scores of Britons who, like Lord Byron, travelled to Greece shortly after Elgin had vandalised the Acropolis to fight alongside the Greeks reclaiming their liberty and founding the modern Greek state.
This unending saga is back in the news. For the last six months or so, George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who currently serves as Chair of the British Museum, has been negotiating a deal with the Greek government. It will see a portion of the Parthenon sculptures sent to Athens, on loan, to be displayed at the British Museum in exchange for other antiquities. The real reason Osborne has entered into such negotiations is self-serving: he needs to raise £1 billion to refurbish the British Museum, but fears that, in view of British public opinion, unless he washes away the stench of Elgin’s larceny from the halls and corridors of the British Museum, sponsors will not be forthcoming.
Unfortunately, constrained by the British establishment’s determination to insist on maintaining full property rights over the artefacts Elgin brought to England, the deal Osborne is offering the Greek side is shameful. Indeed, it could not be otherwise, as long as the UK government and the British Museum insist that they own the artefacts outright.
Think about it: members of the British establishment, who consider the artefacts to be British, and know that the Greek side does not recognise their property rights, oppose even lending them to the New Acropolis Museum, fearing that a Greek court, if not the Greek government, might decree that they not be returned to Britain. The only way they would consider lending them is on the basis of the deal that Mr Osborne is now putting to the Greek government: a deal stipulating that, for the privilege of being lent half the removed Parthenon artefacts, Greek museums must send over other priceless artefacts to be kept in the British Museum as “collateral” — essentially as hostages that will force the Greeks to return the loaned Parthenon marbles.
No Greek government can ever agree to such a sordid deal. And no decent Briton should look at it with anything other than deserved scorn.
Speaking personally, I think it is absurd, after 200 years, to be having the same discussion. It is upsetting for us Greeks and it is dispiriting for the Brits. I am no cultural nationalist, in that I do not want to see every fragment, every statue, every frieze or vase produced in Classical Greece returned to us. The Parthenon friezes, metopes and pediments are a very, very special case. They were created as integral parts of the Parthenon and were hacked down by Elgin with a permit from our enslavers. They belong neither to the Greeks nor to the Britons. They belong to the Parthenon, with which they can be best re-united if they are displayed in the perfectly-designed room on top of the New Acropolis Museum. It is visually connected with the temple in a manner that would bring tears to any visitor’s eyes.
And what about the British Museum? Does it end up with an empty room where the Parthenon relics are now? Absolutely not. As an internationalist, and an Anglophile, I would loathe that. But imagine the following. Let the Parthenon Marbles be re-united with the Parthenon permanently. And let the Greek government commit to keeping the relevant room in the British Museum stocked with a permanent, rotating exhibition of priceless stand-alone classical era treasures. It would allow the people of Britain and international visitors a reason to visit the British Museum again and again and again.
In this manner, the Parthenon will become whole again. And the British Museum will be enriched by a never-ending parade of splendid Greek antiquities that function as joyous ambassadors of Classical Greece in central London, not as Mr Osborne’s sad hostages.