By Bradley Stead
Demand for the return of ‘unlawfully removed cultural objects’ could see the ‘Elgin Marbles’ removed from the British Museum and returned to Greece
As part of the EU’s negotiating mandate for a future trade deal between Britain and the EU, a demand for this clause, made by Greece, could see the return of “unlawfully removed cultural objects” to their original owners. The clause itself does not specify any particular terms or items, however, it has been suggested that it will be used to see the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum and returned to Athens.
Almost 2,500 years old, the marbles were originally part of one whole piece in the Temple of the Parthenon, before their removal by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1801 – 1812. At the time, Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and so since gaining independence in 1832, the Greek government has been arguing for the return of what they deem to be looted artefacts and art in an effort to restore their monuments. In the 1980s, efforts to repatriate the Marbles were increased, causing debate amongst historians, politicians, and the general public. However, the Parthenon Marbles have remained in the British Museum, as they have done since 1816, but the negotiations for Britain’s trade deal with the EU have presented Greece with an opportunity to see the Marbles restored to one piece in the New Acropolis Museum where space remains for the missing pieces to be displayed.
The main argument for the return of the Marbles is so that the Parthenon sculptures are reunited and restore “organic elements” which would allow visitors to appreciate them as one piece, as they were intended to be. The marbles are what is known as a frieze: ‘a narrow strip of decoration, often cut from stone or wood and usually placed at the top of a wall’. The implication being that it is a single work of art, not intended to be divided up so that fragments are displayed around the world. Indeed, the precedent has already been set for the return of artefacts to Greece by museums in Sweden, the University of Heidelberg (Germany), Getty Museum (Los Angeles) and the Vatican. Furthermore, the restoration and reunification of the piece, in the environment they were originally in, would allow for deeper understanding and further interpretation.
One of the fears about returning the Parthenon Marbles is that it will open the floodgates of items being reclaimed by their original owners thus emptying the world’s museums. However, items have been reclaimed/returned before and yet museums continue to be full of interesting artefacts. Also, if museums are worried about losing all their artefacts, then it suggests that these collections were obtained by more than dubious means and shouldn’t necessarily be in the museum anyway.
Museums often collaborate on exhibitions and loan items to one another, so what is to say that that wouldn’t continue? This would allow museums to present the same themes and thoughts that they already do, all that would change is the artefacts which are on display. One could also argue that the limited display time of an exhibition would increase visitor numbers for museums bringing financial benefits for the museum, as well as cultural ones for those who visit them.
The Greek government claim that the marbles were removed unlawfully. Elgin did indeed have a ‘firman’ (permit) from the then ruling Ottoman Sultan, however, the exact wording of this agreement has long been disputed. Also, there are arguments to say that the Ottomans didn’t have ownership of the marbles. Instead, it is argued that they were owned by the original Greek government, meaning that the marbles weren’t for the Ottomans to sell or give away. Furthermore, there are those who say that Elgin was saving the marbles from destruction by the Ottomans, however, the rest of the frieze has survived perfectly fine. In fact, thanks to the state-of-the-art technology at the New Acropolis Museum, the marbles that remained in Athens are in better condition than those that are in the British Museum.
This clause, inserted into the EU trade negotiation mandate with Britain, could see the return of the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’ to Athens, and be restored to create one frieze, as it was always intended to be. There will be those who argue that the marbles should remain in the hands of the British Museum, however, the fact remains that they were obtained by dubious means, and so rather than put up walls or dig our heels, let us show some good faith, admit the mistakes of Britain’s empirical past, and open up a new dialogue of co-operation and trust so that artefacts like the Parthenon Marbles are displayed in all their splendour, where they were originally meant to be.