The Elgin Marbles belong to the whole world and have a legitimate home in more than one place

The debate about who owns the Parthenon statues is 100 years old, yet the arguments are often uninformed and kneejerk
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The Independent Online

It would help if George Clooney knew the difference between the Parthenon and the Pantheon before he started giving advice to the British about why we should return the Elgin Marbles to the Greeks. Still, his ignorance tells us something about the level of the debate surrounding the controversy. There are good and bad arguments on both sides. But sadly we only seem to hear the bad ones.

The row has been rumbling on for a century now. From time to time something happens to stir the pot again. The decision by the British Museum to loan the statue of the river god Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg is only the latest event.

Last time, it was Clooney and his Hollywood chums Matt Damon and Bill Murray offering us their views as part of the publicity for a movie about recovering paintings stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis – though the defacing of the Parthenon does not seem in quite the same league as the killing of millions in the Holocaust.

Before that, the dispute had surfaced in 2009, when the New Acropolis Museum was opened in Athens, to counter the long-running claim that the sculptures the Earl of Elgin saved would, if returned to Athens, become as damaged by pollution as those which had been left on the Parthenon.

Opinion polls suggest that most of the British public thinks the Marbles should be returned, unless you count the Don't Knows. That is hardly surprising given the kneejerk nationalism and shallow political correctness in the debate. Giving them back would be "a very fair and very nice thing" said Clooney, while Stephen Fry resorted to clever-dickery about losing our marbles.

So it is worth unpacking a few fallacies. One confuses time with entitlement. The Greeks had them for 2,250 years whereas we have only had them for 200, ergo... Yet this line of argument disguises a variety of ownerships; it was Athena's temple until the 5th century AD but it was then a Christian church for 1,000 years, a mosque for 200 more, and a roofless ruin for 300 years after that. It is open to question as to whether Elgin saved the best bits or hastened the building's demise. Or perhaps both.

Then there is the unexamined assumption that some periods of history are more significant than others. Athens in the 5th century BC saw a golden age of Greek religion, philosophy, literature, drama and art. The Parthenon stands tribute to that. But the British Empire was as potent a force in global history. And the extraordinary breadth, depth and richness of the collections in the British Museum are an eloquent testament to that other era. Since Victorian times, the Marbles have become ingrained in British culture, as the sonnets of Keats show. No one explains on what basis should we prefer one era over another.

Another presumption goes unchallenged when the Greek Prime Minister says that the Greece of the past equals that of the present. "We Greeks are one with our history and civilisation, which cannot be broken up, loaned out, or conceded," Antonis Samaras asserted last week. Yet cultural historians might plausibly argue that the true inheritors of Athenian civilisation are today more likely to be found elsewhere than the modern Greek state.

And anyway, does geography automatically trump context? If the Parthenon were actually being restored there might be an argument based on the restoration of integrity. But Greece wants to move the Marbles from a museum in London to a museum in Athens. That sounds more of an issue of ownership than artistic authenticity.

Of course it is true that the Marbles which remain in Athens gain an added aura from being seen in the sunlight in which they were originally conceived and displayed. Those in the British Museum lack that. But they gain something else. They are seen alongside the statues of the Egyptians on which they drew, and the Romans and later Indian civilisations which inherited elements of Greek style. It is possible in London to compare the torso of Ilissos with that of Michelangelo's Adam in his sketches for the Sistine Chapel in the Museum's Prints and Drawings room. In the British Museum, the Marbles are milestones in a rich account of human culture that stretches from the dawn of history two million years ago until the present day.

That would be impoverished if the Marbles were to go, and especially if it set a precedent for the return of other objects elsewhere. There are parts of the Parthenon in Athens, London, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen, Munich and Rome, and that is apt. They belong to the whole world and have a legitimate home in more than one place. Were that not the case we would only be able to perform Shakespeare in Stratford.

At the root of the problem is what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig Interpretation of History – judging the past by the standards of the present. Arguments about whether the Turks could legitimately give Elgin permission to take the Marbles 30 years before the Greek War of Independence make no sense. The reality is that the Ottomans ruled Athens for almost 400 years – longer than modern Greece has existed. Raising questions framed in modern international law are an anachronistic nonsense.

Every generation is equidistant from eternity. As Pericles said at a funeral oration for the Athenian dead in 431BC: "Their memorial is carved not only on a headstone by their home, but far away in foreign lands, unwritten, in the minds of every man".

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester