Sometimes fairy tales come true: I never thought to see the stunning coverage given to the Parthenon Marbles by two leading right-wing newspapers, the Mail and the Telegraph.
But see how one can be so wrongfooted: The Mail quotes Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ eloquent case for the return in full, and the Telegraph offers a huge, unmissable, two-page spread offering the pros and cons of a return.
The tall, dark and handsome stranger has ridden into the enemy camp bearing a white flag of peace and bounty; PM Mitsotakis covers every relevant point about the continuing stubborn possession by the British of the world’s finest pieces of ancient sculpture, while appealing warmly to the better nature of the man in No 10. Neither he nor the nation knows whether that man even has a better nature, but we must hope that he has.
A good sign – albeit a tiny one – is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson told PM Mitsotakis that it is not a governmental issue but one for the British Museum to attend to. This is nonsense because it is indeed an intergovernmental issue, but it at once moves the matter to a more arm’s-length distance from his office. Hopefully it even might allow Johnson’s entitled heart to become assailed by thoughts of a more classical nature while he properly assesses Greece’s just case and gives the green light to grownup debates and discussions, and eventually to the repeal of certain acts.
The time has come for the British and their fabulous museum to return what was sneakily taken from an occupied country two centuries ago. The behavior of Elgin and his henchmen is not divulged to the public who come to admire these figures; the BM avers they were “legally acquired” and leaves it at that.
It does not recount to the visitor the briberies and corruptions over many years that Elgin indulged in. Nor does it tell of the brutally rough choppings and sawings of pieces of magnificence from the building the figures adorned. Surely the sense of British fair play isn’t dead? If the public were told the full story they could not possibly approve.
Recent polls suggest public opinion is growing in favor of return, due largely to a greater historical awareness of colonial misdemeanors and a questioning of a dead empire’s right to imagine itself unassailably in the right. The BM is behind the curve on this. It has a reputation to save and must go about saving it right now.
I cannot think of a single argument in favor of keeping the legacy of Greece locked in Bloomsbury, and certainly not the one of a precedent which could lead to the emptying of museums worldwide. There’s no sign of a deluge of requests. Certain things must be returned and that’s that; Benin will be celebrating long before Athens. The millions of other objects which delight and educate will stay where they are.
I was told by the former president of Greece, a government ago, that Greece only wants what was taken unlawfully by Elgin from the Parthenon, and is in fact happy that many museums possess prized parts of Classical Greece. The BM has other rooms chocka with Greek treasures, but in return for those still sitting in Room 18, we could gaze on loans that have never before left Greece.
Who does not wish to gaze on the golden face of Agamemnon, and other Mycenaean treasures? Me for one. You?
Dame Janet Suzman is chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM).