TAITMAIL The endless game of Marbles

There’s a blur of works of art and antiquity criss-crossing the world in a frenzy of decolonisation and repatriation, claims and accusations. 

Nazi looted paintings, souvenir shrunken heads, plundered archaeology, booty ransacked from ancient civilisations are all either back whence they long ago came, or on their way. 

The British Museum, however, has been the most stubborn in not deaccessioning from its collections in response to largely political demands from foreign governments.

Sometimes these things were acquired by well-meaning amateur anthropologists and antiquarians on expeditions around the world who brought them back either for their own cabinets of curiosity or local philosophical societies, in the interests of public understanding and private scholarship. Sometimes the means of acquisition were egregiously shameful, like that of the Benin Bronzes which were stolen by British colonizers during a murderous raid in Nigeria, brought back to Britain and spread around museums and mostly, now, being returned in a flurry of shame. Though not yet from the British Museum which holds 900 of them. 

Recently the Horniman and a couple of other institutions agreed to restore the Bronzes they have after negotiations with the Nigerian government, but there has been no useful chat with the BM, according to Nigeria’s frustrated monuments commissioner Abba Tisa Tijani, complaining that such talks “have not even started”. 

The big claim that has hitherto been beyond discussion, despite consistent demands from the Greek government since the late Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress and politician, opened a broadside 40 years ago, is for the marble frieze sculptures that used to decorate the Parthenon in Athens that we like to call the Elgin Marbles. “You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us” she said in 1984, with tears of passion and righteous exasperation. “They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness”. 

The Elgin Marbles were made by arguably the finest sculptor ever, Phidias, in the 5th century BC to decorate the sacred Parthenon. They are 15 of an original 92 panels, with 21 figures, depicting the battles between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. For me, they are the eighth wonder of the world, speaking not just of a sculptural genius but of a civilisation that was so advanced it could cause them to be made and appreciated. Our civilisation couldn’t do it, we haven't the time. 

There is no legal case to demand the return of the classical sculptures which had been “rescued” from neglect and decay (most of them already having been stolen or destroyed) by Lord Elgin, the art loving ambassador to the Ottoman government in whose empire Athens then lay. He had formal permission “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon” to be studied in safe keeping, but his intention was to decorate his Scottish castle grounds with them. He fell upon hard times, however, and in 1816 he persuaded the British government to buy them from him for a bargain basement £35,000, about £2.7m now.  

So, in an accident of the geopolitics of two centuries ago, some of the best sculpture ever created was acquired not from the Greeks but from the Turks by a British milord for his own collection, not for the enjoyment of the general public. That the sculptures came into the public collections was another accident. The BM’s former director Neil Macgregor was particularly obdurate, arguing that the museum is a global repository of universal acclaim whose curators are likewise second to none in their care and interpretation of treasures like these. And anyway (unlike the Benin Bronzes) they were acquired legitimately. And anyway, the Greeks wouldn’t be able to look after them properly (admittedly a weak argument now since the completion of Athens’s rethought Acropolis Museum which opened, late, in 2009, and now has part of the frieze on display). And anyway, the British government agreed with him and wouldn’t dream of sanctioning negotiations. 

Now, it seems, the unthinkable is not only being thought, it’s being talked. It transpires that the BM’s fairly new chairman, a certain George Osborne, has been having secret talks with the Greek prime minister about the Marbles in the last couple of weeks.  

Macgregor’s successor Hartwig Fischer has been steadfastly silent about the future of the Elgin Marbles, but his deputy Jonathan Williams has not. In August Williams, also the keeper of prehistory and early Europe, broke ice that had been there since the Ice Age by suggesting that – though the Marbles are “an absolutely integral part” of the BM, “I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found”. He said he wanted both sides to “find a way forward around cultural exchange of a level, intensity and dynamism which has not been conceived hitherto”. He seemed to be talking in terms of borrowing and lending, something the Greeks have never officially countenanced. 

But hardly had the Greek press blown the gaffe on Osborne’s secret talks, apparently in a London hotel, than the British government stepped in with the culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, declaring that a return was not only not desirable, it wouldn’t be legal.  “Where does that end?” she asked. If she doesn’t know, neither does the Prime Minister. A statement from Downing Street followed with a doubly ambiguous remark that there were “no plans to change the law which prevents removing objects from the British Museum’s collection, apart from in certain circumstances. Our position hasn’t changed. Decisions relating to the care of the collections are a matter for the museum and its trustees”. 

So for Rishi Sunak, in this increasingly plangent case, the law is the law and inviolable, except in certain unspecified circumstances, and the government won’t allow the Marbles to leave these shores, except of course that it’s not actually the government’s business, it’s the BM’s. Some people wouldn’t trust this government any more than they would trust Lord Elgin, but against a background of 40 years of ill-tempered sniping and unyielding position taking, there seems to be a basis for negotiation of which few not in that West End hotel room last Monday week have any idea. “It is true there is a dialogue between the Greek government and the British Museum” said the Greek minister of state Giorgos Gerapetritis last week. “We have seen progress” said the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The idea of not being able to see these marvellous monuments to man’s creative accomplishment whenever I want to is unbearable, but the world needs to be able to see them, and not just by coming to London. Let’s be told what this dialogue is, what the progress has been in the cause of cultural exchange “on a level, intensity and dynamism that has not been conceived hitherto”. The Elgin Marbles are not just the essence of Greekness, or even Britishness, they are the essence of humanity.

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