Greeks lose their Marbles again

by George Hatjoullis

Controversy has stalked the so-called Elgin Marbles since Lord Elgin removed the artefacts from the Parthenon and other buildings located on the Acropolis of Athens in 1812. Athens was under Ottoman rule at this time so Elgin needed Ottoman permission to remove the artefacts and the nature of the permissions granted has always been the subject of debate. It is doubtful that the Sultan’s representative intended him to remove the artefacts but international politics intervened and the matter was quietly forgotten. The British Government purchased the artefacts from Elgin and gave them to the British Museum where they have since resided. Greece would like the artefacts returned to Athens where they can be displayed as a unified body in a specially built museum. The British Museum has steadfastly refused to comply. 

The British Museum has many artefacts ‘acquired’ under questionable circumstances and might find many such claims lodged if it were to agree to the return of the Marbles. It is understandably reluctant to open Pandora’s Box (so to speak). Leaving aside issues of national pride, law and such like, the question arises as to which principles should apply in the location of works of art. I would suggest context, access and care as three essential guiding principles. The British Museum has taken good care of the Marbles so I do not think this is an issue. The British Museum has, at present, free entry and is visited from people all over the world. Access is thus also not a matter for dispute. Indeed the latest phase of controversy has arisen because the BM has loaned the statue of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg. Works of art should be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

The BM claim to the Marbles fails on context. The Marbles are part of a whole and are best appreciated when viewed in this context. Ideally, the whole body should be returned to adorn the Parthenon and the other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. These works of art were conceived and designed for this context and are best appreciated in this setting. In practice, issues of care require that the originals are kept in a museum and copies adorn the Parthenon. So the remaining issue is which museum? Unification of the collection seems indisputable from an artistic point of view. Greece has built a museum adjacent to the Acropolis for the purpose of housing the whole body of work in its original form. One can debate the merits of the design of the museum but this is secondary and can be remedied if need be. One can also require easier access. The Athens Acropolis Museum has an entry fee. However, the principle of context requires unification and this can only logically happen in the purpose-built museum adjacent to the Acropolis of Athens. The Marbles should be returned to Athens on purely artistic grounds and I am sure the BM would agree on this point.