The anti-Bloomsbury set

The Elgin Marbles are more at home in the British Museum than they would be in Athens.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

MP Edward O’Hara has tabled a Museums Bill to ‘clarify the respective responsibilities of trustees and the secretary of state in terms of international cooperation and the exchange of cultural objects between museums’ (1).

Far from being an innocent clarification, the bill is effectively an attempt to legalise the return of the Parthenon Marbles, now at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, to Greece. The bill was first put forward on 5 February 2002 and will return for discussion in April. Edward O’Hara and Richard Allan (another MP whose name is on the bill), are both part of the campaign to return the Marbles in time for the 2004 Olympics due to be hosted in Greece, ‘Parthenon 2004’ (2).

At present, the British Museum’s trustees are not empowered to dispose of the objects in their collections – their responsibility to keep objects in trust for future generations is enforced by law. The proposed Museums Bill gives trustees the power to ‘reach an agreement for…the exchange of cultural objects between the museum of which they are the trustees and a museum…in a country other than the UK’. The bill also gives the secretary of state the power to ‘make proposals’ to trustees about the return of cultural artefacts, and, in certain cases, to ‘reach agreements’ for the trustees.

The non-threatening language of reconciliation that runs throughout the bill (‘reach agreements’, ‘exchange of cultural objects’, ‘international cooperation’, and so on) says a lot about the current campaign to return the Elgin Marbles.

The tone at the launch of the ‘Parthenon 2004’ campaign at the House of Commons on 16 January 2002 was gentle and inoffensive. It lacked the emotive proclamations of cultural identity that marked many of the demands for restitution of artefacts in the USA. The campaign seems to be motivated by bad feelings, rather than by big passions. Actress and campaign supporter Fiona Shaw claimed that the separation of the Marbles from the rest of the Parthenon evokes the ‘sadness of British imperialism’ and causes an ‘unnecessary discontent’. Shaw has never seen the Marbles, because she doesn’t want to ‘get on a red London bus’ to see them. In essence, the campaign is about how nice it would be to get the Marbles and the Parthenon back together again.

This is the tone of a campaign that senses it has already won the argument. Most cultural professionals seem to have come around to the idea of returning the Marbles. A summary of a London Institute of Art and Law conference on 8 December 2001 concluded that, ‘There appears now to be wider acceptance of the principle of restitution [compared to a year earlier]. There also appears to be wider acceptance (or resignation) that the Parthenon Marbles will eventually be returned to Athens.’ Not one speaker spoke against restitution (3).

The cultural elite has collapsed on the question of restitution. Haunted by feelings of imperial guilt, and no longer confident that the British Museum’s collection is something to be proud of, museum professionals who argue for keeping the Marbles in the UK are conspicuous by their absence (British Museum director Robert Anderson being a notable exception). In the USA, the repatriation mood is even stronger, with the Smithsonian Institution allegedly sending lists of artefacts to Native American tribes, asking if they want to make any repatriation claims.

Although it feeds off the intellectual submission of the cultural elite, Parthenon 2004 tries to present itself as a public campaign. It cites the dubious poll after a Channel 4 Fifteen-to-One quiz-show special in 1996, when 92.5 percent of viewers voted to return the Marbles to Greece (4). And you can register your ‘support’ for Parthenon 2004 by sending off one of the ready-typed postcards to your MP – ‘I am aware of the many issues that have been raised over the years on this subject, but believe that any problems can be overcome with sufficient goodwill from the UK and Greek authorities’.

All they are appealing to is the most passive element of current opinion that no longer feels strongly either way. A campaign motivated by guilt and facing no opposition can only end up with a quiet giving in, asking ‘Why don’t we just let them go?’.

But this is not an issue that should be decided with a shrug of the shoulders. The Parthenon Marbles have a special value in the collections of the British Museum. As director Robert Anderson pointed out in The Times (London), the Marbles are intrinsic to the British Museum’s identity – they stand at its very heart (5). Visitors to the museum have the unique opportunity to experience, under one roof, artefacts from the world’s main cultures. As arguably the world’s finest ancient works of art that hold centre stage in human history, the Marbles are key to this experience and the understanding it can provide.

Given what is at stake, the public debate about whether the Marbles should stay or go should be fought with passion. Instead, arguments for the return of the Marbles are posed in the bland language of reconciliation – that we should return them so that people will feel better. At the launch of Parthenon 2004, TV presenter William G Stewart said it would be a ‘generous gesture’ to send the Marbles back to Athens – while Dr Peter Derow, ancient historian at Wadham College, Oxford says it would be a ‘gesture of friendship, trust and respect’ towards the Greeks. The Marbles were described as ‘imperial trophies’, and tainted as such. The Greeks want them back – so why would we argue?

There is a sense that things have been wrenched from their place. In the words of Fiona Shaw, ‘certain objects belong together’. The Marbles’ separation from the Parthenon is seen as being a source of unease and discomfort. As Edward O’Hara MP said in his recitation ‘If the Marbles could speak’: ‘We don’t belong to the British Museum…we belong to the Parthenon.’ Returning them would be closure, for the Greeks and for us. Oliver Taplin, professor of classical languages and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford said that Greece needed the Marbles as symbolic support for its national identity.

A common assumption, articulated by the leader of Parthenon 2004 Richard Allan MP, is that the Marbles need to be seen in the ‘context of the Parthenon to be appreciated’. But why is the best context for the Marbles a museum in sight of the monument from which they were taken? The context of the Marbles among the artefacts of the world is surely a more elevated one. We can come to see them, not just as the particular product of Ancient Greece, but as a pivotal moment in the history of human civilisation. As part of one of the richest collections in the world, these objects take on a new and more vibrant significance.

The idea that things belong best in their place of origin undermines the nature of a museum. The act of collecting involves disjuncture and separation – it involves taking an object or parts of an object from the world, and preserving it in a separate sphere. In the new British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, you have fireplaces wrenched from sitting rooms, whole wall panels prised off walls and reconstructed anew, clothes taken from their owners’ backs, trinkets from dressing tables.

This separation from original context is not a bad thing. It is not as if we would understand the clothes, trinkets, fireplaces and wall panels in the British Galleries better had they stayed in their original place. On the contrary, these objects take on a new existence in a museum, where they can be seen, analysed and experienced as part of a collection. When it belongs to a collection, an object can tell part of the story of history.

Josie Appleton is author of Museums for ‘The People’?, a Conversation in Print by the Institute of Ideas. To buy a copy, call 020 7269 9220. For more details, see the Institute of Ideas website.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and Galleries

Culture Wars: Past tense, by Ian Walker

(1) See the Museums Bill (.pdf 247 KB)

(2) See the Parthenon 2004 website

(3) Review of the Institute of Art and Law conference on the British Committee for the Restitution for the Parthenon Marbles website

(4) See details of this programme supplied by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles on the Hellenic Electronic Center website

(5) The Elgin Marbles are staying put in London, The Times , 15 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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