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The Elgin Marbles, British Museum: Why returning them to Greece is a crazy idea

UK Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declared in an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea last week that, as prime minister, he would open negotiations for the return of the Elgin Marbles - more properly known as the Parthenon Sculptures - to Athens. This apparently on the grounds that the original permission for their removal 200 years ago came not from the Greeks, but from the Ottoman Empire which occupied Greece from 1458 until the 1820s.


Mr Corbyn has been making this argument for many years, but I don't know how much thought he has given to the ramifications. From his latest statement it seems that he is anticipating a widespread repatriation of all artefacts "stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession" included those "looted from other countries in the past".

For 250 years, visitors have been able to walk into the British Museum and travel in wonder through both time and space.

That could quite conceivably leave the archaeological galleries of the British Museum denuded and, if applied in other countries, virtually empty many of the world's great museums.

Let's take this one step at a time. First, in pure academic terms, it would surely be a good thing to see all the surviving sculptures and friezes that once adorned the Parthenon re-united (and - in a perfect world - remounted on the building). That wouldn't happen if the British Museum returned its marbles.

The risk from pollution and earthquake is too great to re-install them and they would therefore join the other remnants already in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has a view over the original building.

And there would still be lots of missing pieces - other decorative fragments and panels from the Parthenon are held in seven other museums around the world.

The immediate consequence of the repatriation would then be that the sculptures are seen by far fewer people. The Acropolis Museum gets about 1.5m a year compared with over 6m who come to the British Museum. Those 6m would not only miss out one of the high points of world art, but the sculptures could no longer be studied or appreciated against the relics of other great cultures from around the globe.

Because that is why the British Museum is so important. It - and great museums like it, from the Louvre, to the Pergamon, the Hermitage and the Met - are not just some of the biggest academic institutions and tourist attractions in the world, each is a world in it own right, an extraordinary repository of the high points of human achievement across many different cultures.

For 250 years, visitors have been able to walk into the British Museum and travel in wonder through both time and space. We owe two of Keats' greatest poems - Ode on a Grecian Urn and On Seeing the Elgin Marbles - to his visits to the British Museum.

In many, many ways, the museum it is a far more important and influential cultural construct than the Parthenon. Repatriation of its treasures would destroy it forever.

Oh, you are exaggerating you might say. The Parthenon Sculptures are a one off, they mean everything to the Greeks, and Britain can afford to be gracious. But think on. Mr Corbyn's argument for repatriation linked to "occupied or colonial possession" has far wider implications.

In another British Museum gallery is another great treasure - the wonderful friezes of an Assyrian Lion Hunt, which predate the Parthenon Sculptures by a couple of hundred years. They were removed from Ninevah in the 1854s when it too was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Should they now be sent back to Iraq? And what about the many many Egyptian antiquities in museums around the world? Egypt was Ottoman between 1517 and 1867 and a British protectorate from 1867-1952. That should pretty much cover every Egyptian artefact in a western museum.

And under these principles should there be a cut-off date? If so, when? After all, Rome is still graced with eight ancient Egyptian obelisks removed under military occupation 2000 years ago. In the early 13th century St Mark's Basilica in Venice was adorned with columns, sculptures and the four bronze horses which were looted from Constantinople in 1204.

And now perhaps you think I am just over-complicating things. Not that many artefacts are, in practice, being argued over. But how that would surely change if the sculptures were returned and other countries saw a chance to build new museums and fresh tourist attractions.

And then it wouldn't be me who was complicating the argument, it would be the international lawyers and nationalist politicians sensing a precedent. And once legal arguments start, things rarely end well.
The Elgin Marbles, British Museum: Why returning them to Greece is a crazy idea Reviewed by Kelechi O on 00:16 Rating: 5

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