No peace over the Parthenon

The Greeks keep lowering their demands - but the Marbles just won't budge.

Josie Appleton

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Greek minister of culture Evangelos Venizelos was turned away from the British Museum this week, after his latest bid to gain the loan of the Parthenon Marbles was rejected (1).

The debate about where the Marbles belong has rumbled on ever since they were taken by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, from an Athens occupied by a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Some have been concerned with the politics of the Marbles, claiming that they were looted by a British ambassador to Constantinople from a defenceless Greece. This line of argument has united British leftists from Lord Byron to Christopher Hitchens with Greek nationalists.

Others have been concerned with responsible trusteeship. Some British representatives claim that the Greeks are not capable of looking after the Marbles, citing the Greeks’ neglect of other ancient monuments. Meanwhile, Greek campaigners point to the damage done to the sculptures while they were being cleaned in the 1930s as evidence that the British Museum cannot be trusted.

But these spats about the Marbles have largely died down. The official Greek request for the Marbles is now much more moderate, to the point of being anodyne. The Greek government says that its claim to the Parthenon sculptures ‘it is not a nationalistic claim made by the Greek government and the Greek people’, but is ‘the claim of the mutilated monument itself’ (2).

The Greeks seem to hope that flattery will get them everywhere, saying that they hope the Marbles issue will be approached with ‘the political, historic, and cultural sensitivity befitting a country such as Great Britain’. They try moral blackmail, with Venizelos saying this week that it would be a shame if the new museum built to house the Marbles in Greece opened, and ‘we were obliged to promote the dismemberment of the Marbles’.

Since 1997, the Greek government has even reneged on its claim to own the Marbles, asking instead for the British Museum to give the Marbles to Greece on a ‘long-term loan’ (3). Greece has offered to exchange the Marbles for other Classical treasures, and has offered the British Museum part of the new Acropolis Museum.

Yet the British Museum and the British government will not budge. British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s latest statement was polite but firm, saying that since the Marbles are among a ‘select group of key objects which are indispensable to the museum’s core function to tell the story of human civilisation, the sculptures cannot be lent to any museum, in Greece or elsewhere’.

As the high point of Greek art, the Marbles lie at the centre of the British Museum. They are a point of comparison for all the museum’s other artefacts, which span the length and breadth of human history. This is why, in spite of the British cultural elite’s many concessions to political pressure, it will be unlikely to give in on this one.

At the British Museum, you approach the Marbles from the Great Court by passing through the Egyptian galleries, Assyrian friezes, Roman copies of Greek statues, and the Nereid Monument from Xanthos – providing an already rich comparison of the Marbles with their near neighbours.

The Egyptian sculptures are stiff and geometric. The Assyrian friezes are, in my opinion, ugly – the warriors have bulging decorative features, and they are jumbled on top of and around each other, with fish and horses thrown in. The Classical figures of the Nereid Monument and the Roman statues approach the Marbles. Here you see a new attention to the form of the body, and signs of movement and vitality.

But the Marbles are something else. They are alive – there are horsemen galloping, a cow lowing, a boy tying a man’s armour, women’s bodies showing through folds of cloth. There is a beauty and perfection to these sculptures that seems to come out of nowhere. This was what Classical civilisation was working towards, making the Marbles a natural point of comparison for the products from every other human society.

Of course it is different to see them like this, as works of art or museum objects, rather than as a part of a whole monument. Today, the Parthenon sculptures are scattered all over Europe – those in the British Museum, which represent around half of the total, are missing heads to other museums. They lose some aspect of their meaning by being taken from their original context.

Had the Marbles ended up in the manor of one of Lord Elgin’s mates, or in a different museum, the claim for their return might have more validity.

But the British Museum is unlike other museums – not because it is British, but because it is universal. What the Marbles gain from being shown here, among African masks, Chinese statues and Mayan wall paintings, is far greater than anything that was lost by their removal. In the British Museum, the Marbles are raised out of their particular time and place, and take on an elevated significance among the artefacts of human history.

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