Pressured to Return the Elgin Marbles, Should the British Museum Finally Give Way?

In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been more urgent 

At the beginning of June, in an interview with the Greek left-leaning newspaper Ta Nea, the UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn promised to hand back the set of Parthenon sculptures, known to some as ‘the Elgin Marbles’, to Greece. The 5th-century BC artefacts were brought to London by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century, having apparently secured permission from the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Greece at that time. They have been housed at the British Museum from 1816, and the Greek government has regularly lobbied for their return. Corbyn told the Greek paper: ‘As with anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past – we should be engaged in constructive talks with the Greek government about returning the sculptures.’

Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, figures L and M from the east pediment of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, figures L and M from the east pediment of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, figures L and M from the east pediment of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Jeremy Corbyn is not a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, as I am, but his comments have done our cause a favour. Not so much because they are particularly well-argued – Corbyn may indeed have been shooting from the hip, as often. The Labour leader’s pledge has provoked predictable atavistic reactions from the usual suspects (British Museum director Hartwig Fischer insisted over the weekend that the sculptures had a ‘unique setting’ in the London institution). But such reactions are being exposed to scrutiny at a particularly sensitive time, when issues of reunification and restoration of colonially looted objects are at the forefront of debate between genuinely well-informed cultural commentators. Only last month, expert historian and BBC presenter David Olusoga suggested at the Hay literary festival that British museums could consider returning colonial loot to improve post-Brexit foreign relations. ‘There are real senses of loss in those countries – it’s beneficial to us as a nation to listen to those appeals.’

While it is a breath of fresh air to see a leading politician take a stand on the Elgin or rather Parthenon Marbles, Jeremy Corbyn should be made aware of the subtleties of the case. It requires us to treat the sculptures not as the prime example of colonial plunder (although some may feel that they are), but rather as representing a very special case. The Marbles are unique in that the building they adorned two and a half millennia ago still stands in full view on its mighty Acropolis rock – you see it from every street in the centre of Athens. Roughly half of the extant Parthenon architectural sculptures are patiently waiting – in their specially designed and designated Museum gallery opposite the Acropolis – for their London-confined brothers and sisters to join them.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Andy Miah

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Andy Miah

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Andy Miah

Moreover, although scholarly collaboration between Greek and British archaeologists, conservators, curators and art historians with a special interest in the Parthenon and its fabric does already exist, it would be enormously enhanced should the British Museum’s marbles be reunited in Athens. The Greek government and Archaeological Service would then be both prepared and indeed mustard keen to engage in mutually enlightening exchanges of artefacts and expertise. Such a situation is currently unimaginable in the current atmosphere of frozen retrenchment caused by the British Museum’s stance.

The world has changed since 1816. By clinging on to ‘their’ marbles, the British Museum risks appearing to be culturally nationalistic, undermining its claim that preserving them is good for world culture. Desperate diversionary tactics include the current exhibition, ‘Rodin and the art of ancient Greece’. The show plausibly contends that visits to the British Museum’s collection of Parthenon fragments had a formative impact on the great French sculptor. But it also treats the ancient marbles with disrespect, as if they were mere disembodied, decontextualized art-historical objects. That simply won’t wash any more.

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, c. 1910. Courtesy: © Musée Rodin; photograph: Albert Harlingue

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, c. 1910. Courtesy: © Musée Rodin; photograph: Albert Harlingue

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, c. 1910. Courtesy: © Musée Rodin; photograph: Albert Harlingue

The British Museum is of course not the only museum outside Greece to hold ‘Parthenon Marbles’. But it holds the most, by far (though fewer than perhaps it wishes to give the impression it does), and the Museum’s trustees moreover up the ante by claiming that what it holds, it also in some useful, legal sense, ‘owns’: in trust, on behalf of the ‘British’ nation. For Corbyn, however, they are just some of the more prominent examples of ‘colonial loot’. The substantive point is that the reunification of those Parthenon marbles, wrongly positioned as they are currently displayed in the poorly appointed Duveen Gallery of the British Museum, will certainly involve tricky political as well as possibly complicated legal manoeuvring, together with an enormous amount of goodwill.

What it will not involve, however, as a necessary and inevitable consequence, is the opening of floodgates to claims of comparable reunifications. That is a nonsensical non-argument – precisely because there are no comparable claims that could be persuasively put forward. To repeat, in that their site of original display still exists, the Elgin-Parthenon Marbles present us with a unique case. Nor is the British Museum exactly short of other ancient Greek ‘visitor attractions’ to display in a supposedly ‘global’ context.

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, c. 438-432 BC, marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Returning the marbles to the New Acropolis Museum of Athens, their natural home, would constitute a radical change to the British Museum’s retentionist, ‘ownership’ stance. But the beneficial consequences in the form of mutual and reciprocal exchange of cultural goods and information and expertise between Britain and Greece can hardly be overstated. The much-needed enhancement of Britain’s global image, especially given how critical other countries are of our perceived ‘anti-European’ and insular pro-Brexit stance, has never been more urgent.

Main image: Parthenon marbles at the British Museum, London, 2007. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Justin Norris

Paul Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Democracy: A Life (2018, OUP).

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