Back to the Parthenon Marbles.
No doubt many readers of this post know all too well what the Parthenon Marbles are and I’d wager that they are also well aware of the historic and recent debates about the repatriation of the marbles to Greece. I’ve often thought about the pro’s and con’s of this ‘cultural tug of war’, more so in recent years given my interests in Classical Studies and particularly because cultural heritage has been a hot topic in the media that has emphasised the brutal destruction of archaeological sites in the middle-east at the hands of religious extremist groups. Now I’m by no means comparing the savagery of such extreme examples to the situation of the Parthenon Marbles, after all they are at least safe in their current location, but I feel compelled to wade back into the debate and voice my opinion given the recent comments of the current labour leader who (it is claimed in the media), somewhat sensationally promised to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles to Greece should he become Prime Minister. In a recent interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, it’s reported that Mr Corbyn stated that the sculptures….
‘Belong to Greece’
Furthermore he claimed that should hebecome Prime Minister he would….
‘Begin constructive talks with its government to begin the process of their return’
Now this is all good in principle, and no doubt such a generous act would foster a mutually beneficial ‘relationship’ between Greece and the UK (the benefits of which I can’t comment on), but the debate rumbles on and Mr Corbyn’s comments have done little to clarify the matter nor have they provided any consensus on whether the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to their country of origin or remain in the British Museum.
The basics of the debate – Should they stay or should they go?
The leave campaign – The basic elements of the repatriation argument are centred on legal legitimacy and cultural significance.
- According to the those in favour of repatriating the Parthenon Marbles, the legitimacy of British ownership is debatable given that the official documentation granting the removal of the artefacts from Greece has been challenged. If this is the case then removing the Marbles from Greece was in fact illegal.
- Contextually, the Parthenon Marbles were not intended to be stand-alone artefacts. They constituted a greater sculptural whole and therefore, de-contextualising then diminishes their significance and purpose.
- Returning the Parthenon Marbles and then re-displaying then as a whole in their cultural and historical context would increase our understanding of them and thus our knowledgeof the past.
The remain campaign – Relies on the legalities of official ownership and a further legal principle of limitation as well as the risk of setting a repatriation precedent.
- According to those who maintain that the Parthenon Marbles should be retained in London, to repatriate such works would effectively empty the museums of the world given that many museums exhibit the works of other countries. This debate deals with the greater argument at goes beyond just the Parthenon Marbles.
- Although the British Museum maintain the artefacts were obtained legitimately and legally the time that has passed since the transaction is considered of suitable length to make any claim from Greece contesting the legality of the removal of the Marbles to have passed and that the legal principle of limitation would now apply.
- The nature of displaying the Marbles in Greece would be very similar to that in London. Arguments against context are challenged here because the Marbles would not be returned to their original context on the Parthenon, rather they would be exhibited in the Acropolis museum and thus remain de-contextualised.
Of course, as expected, Mr Corbyn’s comments have not gone unnoticed by those at the British Museum. The comments of Hartwig Fischeris (Director of the British Museum) suggest that the labour leaders’ ambitions to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles are not popular, indeed it is clear that the Marbles are certainly not going anywhere soon. It is also refreshing to hear the ‘remain campaign’ emphasising the historical and cultural significance of the Marbles remaining in London rather than relying on what I think is a rather dubious legal claim from way back when! The case for keeping the Marbles in The British Museum is for
me a compelling notion given that the…
‘Parthenon sculptures are a vital part of this world collection that seeks to tell the history of humanity over two million years’
But for me, a truly compelling argument for retaining the Parthenon Marbles in London is the role that they play in their current multi-cultural context increasing our knowledge and understanding of the impact and reception of antiquity on later historical periods…
‘The museum is always seeking to extend our knowledge of these objects. For example, we have an exhibition on at the moment which looks at the profound effect they had on the French sculptor Rodin’
For the time being at least I am unswayed by Mr Corbyn’s comments and strongly maintain that the Parthenon Marbles are best left where they are. No doubt, there are those who would challenge my opinion and of course I encourage you to do so.
I look forward to a further debate.