While the current financial crisis dominates all current press coverage relating to Greece, there is no reason why we should use this as an excuse to ignore other key Anglo-Hellenic issues.
At present, news coming from Greece is predominantly negative — returning the Parthenon Sculptures (popularly known as the Elgin Marbles) would give people there something positive — a reason to celebrate and something that would increase the tourist draw to the country, helping to revive their economy.
Coincidentally, June 20, 2011 marked the second anniversary of the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens — an event that raised the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to a level of global interest. Britain however continues to act as though nothing has changed.
Although the Parthenon Sculptures existed in Greece for over 2,000 years, the British Museum has had them for less than 200, yet seems to feel that they are now as much a part of the museum as they are a part of Greece’s history.
Whenever the issue of the return of these sculptures is raised, the same tired platitudes are heard — references to losing their marbles are made as though it is the first time anyone has tried this joke. At the same time though, this is often used as a way of sidestepping the real issue — a quick joke distracts from the fact that the arguments for the retention of the sculptures are all relatively weak.
For many years, one of the stock arguments used for retention of the Parthenon Sculptures was that Greece had nowhere to put them if they were returned. The new Acropolis Museum has now refuted this reasoning once and for all — few who have visited it would disagree that it creates a far better setting for the sculptures, allowing them to be seen in the context of the Parthenon upon which they were originally designed to be viewed. The sculptures were never loose pieces of artwork that could be located anywhere, but instead formed an integral part of the Parthenon — for this reason, if no other, it can never be claimed with any degree of honesty that they belong in any other part of the world. They were carved from local stone, designed to be seen under the brilliantly sharp Attic light — not to be displayed in a gloomy gallery in London.
As the 2012 Olympics draw closer, perhaps it is time for Britain to reconsider its relationship with Greece — and to think of the many things that it has given the world. As Greece hands over the flame to England to start the countdown to the Olympics, perhaps it is the ideal time for Britain to consider giving something back in return.
Greece has in the past made generous offers to Britain — that other artifacts (some never exhibited anywhere previously) would be available as a series of rotating loans if the Parthenon Sculptures were to be returned. The temporary exhibitions are one of the biggest draws to attract repeat visitors to the British Museum — the value of an offer such as this in boosting the museum’s popularity should not be underestimated. While countries such as Iran and Egypt have used threats of withdrawal of cooperation with archaeologists and museums to force the return of artifacts held by foreign institutions, Greece has always supported the work of British archaeologists within the country, as well as regularly taking part in inter-museum loans. There is no evidence that it is a country that could not be trusted with the return of the sculptures.
Marbles Reunited (of which I am the chair) campaigns actively for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens. We have found that despite the popular perception that it is a Greek issue, there are large numbers of English supporters — who understand the reasons for reunifying all the surviving sculptures in a single place, yet do not find this aim to be in any sort of conflict with being British or even supporting institutions such as the British Museum. In many cases they see it as a possibility of righting one of history’s wrongs. It is rare that the opportunity is present to take an action such as this — surely Britain should be using the opportunity to define a new era in cultural diplomacy, rather than hiding away from any form of serious discussions.
In many countries, particularly the USA, restitution of disputed artifacts is being tackled by many museums. Despite initial reluctance, many are finding that reciprocal deals can lead to solutions that are acceptable to both parties involved in the dispute. Even in cases where the law has specifically mandated resolution of cases, such as those of Native American artifacts, no museums have found that this leads to any sort of emptying of their collections, yet this scare story (that the return of the Parthenon Sculptures would set a dangerous precedent) is regularly put about by members of the British press.
Perhaps Britain should stop seeing the idea of returning the Parthenon Sculptures as losing something that is rightfully theirs. At the time the sculptures were acquired from Lord Elgin, Greece was a territory occupied by the Ottomans and Elgin led many to believe that removal of the sculptures was necessary if they were to be preserved. Even in 1816 when parliament purchased the sculptures from Lord Elgin, it was suggested in the debates that they should be kept only until such time as an independent Greek state was able to look after them. Once again in 1941, Miss Thelma Cazalet, a Conservative MP, asked the prime minister «whether he will introduce legislation to enable the Elgin Marbles to be restored to Greece at the end of hostilities as some recognition of the Greeks? magnificent stand for civilization.» At that time, the response was that it was «inopportune for a final decision» but added that ?Her Majesty?s government will not fail to give the matter their careful and sympathetic consideration.”
Many years have passed since the dark days of the Second World War, but that careful and sympathetic consideration by the government has yet to occur. Surely now it is time to re-evaluate the issue in a fair and unbiased way and see what Britain might contribute to the Greek people in return for all that their country has given us.
* Andrew George has been Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives in Cornwall since 1997.