I grew up in England with parents who believed in culture. My father’s idea of a fun game was guessing the date of a Gothic church. Hardly a month went by when my siblings and I weren’t dragged off to see a museum or historic site of some kind. And although I like to think I was a normal child (I had an-eight year calendar in which I checked off the days until I was old enough to legally marry Paul McCartney) I mostly enjoyed these educational outings. There were limits to my tolerance, however, as I discovered when I was taken to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures from the Parthenon. Confronted with these masterpieces of art, I felt very like Freddy Standen, the adorably beta hero of Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion:
… when … he confronted these treasures of ancient Greece, he was quite dumbfounded, and only recovered his voice when he was called upon to admire the Three Fates, from the eastern pediment, “Dash it, they’ve got no heads!” he protested.
“No, but you see, Freddy, they are so very old! They have been damaged!” explained Miss Charing.
“Damaged! I should rather think so! They haven’t got any arms either!”….
… the disclosure that he had been maced of his blunt by a set of persons whom he freely characterized as hell-kites only to see a collection of marbles of which the main parts were missing so worked upon him that he could not be brought to recognize the merits of the frieze, but seemed instead to be … much inclined to seek out the author of this attempt to gull the public….
To my teenage self the Parthenon sculptures became the gold standard for tedium. “As boring as the Elgin Marbles” was a terrible insult, often applied to the spotty sons of my mother’s friends.
The marbles are an important part of Regency lore. Lord Elgin, British ambassador to Turkey, had them removed from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped to London in the early years of the nineteenth century. They were put on display in London and eventually sold (for less than Elgin’s costs) to the British Museum. Even then the removal of sculptures from such a famous and ancient building was controversial. Elgin’s actions were condemned by Byron, among others. But visitors flocked to see them and they were much admired (notwithstanding the opinions of Philistines like Freddy and me).
All right, I didn’t remain a total Philistine. When I grew up, I visited the marbles again a few times and admired them, in a slightly academic way. And, as a student of the Regency era, I envisioned my characters’ reactions to them a couple of hundred years ago. But I didn’t really “get” them until last month, when I visited Athens for the first time. I saw the Parthenon (which was rather more beat up than I expected) and the remaining sculptures, which are housed in the spiffy new Acropolis Museum, designed to hold them. To hold the ones in Greece, the ones in London, and the odd fragments scattered in other museums around the world.
Because the Greeks want them back. They seriously want the British Museum to pack ‘em up and reverse what they regard as Lord Elgin’s act of vandalism. Watching a movie shown (in English) at the Acropolis Museum, I got the distinct impression that Elgin’s actions were a far greater tragedy than the seventeenth century explosion that destroyed half the temple when the Turks were using it as a gunpowder repository. If Elgin were alive today, he’d be a dead man.
I stopped in London for a few days on my way home from Greece and revisited the marbles, now called the Parthenon Marbles (no one likes Elgin anymore). The display at the British Museum is just as splendid as that at the Acropolis, but the curatorial message is very different. How excellent, it implies, that people can see these masterpieces of world art in a major cultural institution in a major city, where admission is free for all.
Should the British send the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece? Reams have been written on both sides of the argument and I only offer a quick, incomplete, and no doubt grossly simplified summary.
The British side:
- Since Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire in 1801 and Elgin got permission from the Turkish government, the removal was legal.
- Even if it wasn’t legal, the statute of limitations applies.
- Elgin saved the marbles from further degradation and even destruction had they been left in Athens.
- Returning the marbles to Greece would set a precedent that would empty half the museums in the world.
The Greek side:
- Elgin acted illegally.
- The Parthenon is one of the most famous buildings in the history of the world and it’s an outrage that part of its decoration should have been removed.
- The marbles that Elgin didn’t steal (and his method of removal isn’t exactly up to modern standards of conservation) have survived in Athens, proving that Elgin’s action wasn’t necessary for their safety.
- All the marbles should be together, in their original home city, in the state-of-the-art facility build to house them.
I don’t have a dog in this race, largely because I doubt the British Museum will let them go, even if hell’s temperature should happen to drop below 32 degrees. I also worry about restitution setting off a tempest of other claims and making a lot of lawyers richer and museums poorer. But I know nothing about international law and could be talking utter rot. What about you? Do you think the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece, so are you happy for them to remain in London?