Should Elgin have lost his marbles?
Before our recent visit to Athens and the Acropolis, I went to see the best bits of the Parthenon just 70 miles from my home. The controversy surrounding Lord Elgin’s ‘rape’ of the best sculptures from the Parthenon from 1801-1812 still rages. After two centuries of residence in the British Museum, is it time to repatriate the marbles?
Some would say Elgin did a huge service for humanity and history by saving the marbles from destruction under the Ottomans. Others, including Lord Byron, maintained that Elgin had been guilty of vandalism:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
I have to say that being able to view the marbles at eye level in the Museum was a far better option than straining to view them on the high pediments of the Parthenon itself. But what of the return of the marbles to modern day Greece? Do we have a right to hold onto them?
Now this gets us deeply into the wider debate of the return of all similar artistic and archeological pieces that have been removed by invading nations anywhere in the world. But let’s not talk about generalities. Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece? Isn’t the Parthenon an infinitly poorer spectacle without the full display of its pediment sculptures? Or, if they were never to be restored to the Parthenon, should they not now reside in the new Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill?
What reasonable arguments do we have for keeping them on British soil? Many arguments, yes, but (I suspect) not a single reasonable argument.