We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

We’re keeping our Marbles

I don’t suppose that anybody outside Britain or Greece has even heard of the Elgin Marbles and in neither country are there a great many people who are likely to be get exercised over them.

That said, these ancient Greek artifacts are something upon which a small number of people have quite robust opinions and I happen to be one of them.

The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are currently housed in the British Museum in London and are made up of 56 sections of the frieze sculpted by Phidias around the Parthenon. They were acquired and brought to London by the British diplomat Lord Elgin early in the 19th Century from their original home in Greece and where, despite their grandeur and beauty, they had been abandoned to the twins corrosions of the elements and indifference.

For many years, the Greek government has been campaigning for the return of the Marbles to their original home in Greece. In this, they are supported by a large section the British arty/literatti/celebrity set who approach the issue with the same kind of fuzzy-headedness and sophistic feel-goodery that they approach everything else.

Much of the left in Britain has also taken the side of the Greeks in this issue, not out of any particular fondness for Greece but because, for them, the Marbles are a rude reminder of British imperial acquisitiveness and arrogance and their continued presence in the British Museum a standing affrontery to the culture of self-abasement and guilt that they have so assiduously fostered on these shores.

However, the entire matter has been off the radar-screen for some time and it may be because the ‘usual suspects’ are otherwise noisily engaged in the matter of preserving Saddam Hussein’s regime, that we have been treated to a rather bold announcement from the British Museum’s director:

“The director of the British Museum has said that the Elgin Marbles should never be returned from Britain to Greece.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Neil MacGregor said the sculptures, which once adorned the Parthenon temple in Athens, should remain in London.

He has also ended discussions with a British campaign group seeking their return to Greece.”

Good for you, Mr.McGregor. I was not only delighted by this announcement but also (pleasantly) surprised, given the recent low-profile of the issue. It has set my mind to wondering whether Mr.McGregor has at all chanced upon a very recent essay on the matter by Sean Gabb:

“Needless to say, I am strongly opposed to returning the Marbles. If I had my way, they would stay in London forever – preferably joined by anything else we might in future be able to bribe out of the Greeks or the other successor states of antiquity. Indeed, if Lord Elgin did anything wrong, it was to leave too much behind when he finished his work in Athens. He should at least have taken all the pediment sculptures and another caryatid. He might also have dug up some of the statues buried after the Persians destroyed the old Acropolis in 480BC. The world of culture would be all the better had he done so. Just compare the Caryatid he took away with those he left behind, and ask if he really did wrong. However, rather than continue with its mere statement, let me try to justify my opinion. I will review the case for returning the Marbles.”

I usually make a point of arguing a given matter from my own bat, but I am not averse to using someone else’s bat in circumstances where their bat is both bigger and wielded with such admirable adroitness. Sean’s tightly argued and highly learned essay is quite the most the comprehensive and definitive case for retaining the Elgin Marbles in Britain and I do not hesitate to strongly recommend it to everyone regardless of whether they are British or not.

Of course, I can only speculate as to whether or not Mr.McGregor has read the essay and was inspired by it in the same way I was. Probably not. More likely it is just coincidence in which case it is a welcome synchronicity and an indication that level-heads are starting to fight back on this issue.

17 comments to We’re keeping our Marbles

  • Wait for the EU directive that “returns” the Elgin Marbles to the Acropolis. Two years tops.

    Cultures do have a need to conserve those artefacts which define or reinforce their identities but present day Greece is about as close to the Hellenes as England is to the Celts.

    Their national identity is shaped by Venice and Turkey, not Athens and Sparta.

    Therefore, Elgin should have bought the Acropolis and made it British diplomatic territory. and Corinth, and Diocletian’s splendid palace in Split.

  • S. Weasel

    Certainly I’ve heard of the Elgin Marbles! And that’s not just because I grew up in a town that cast a 1/3-scale model of the Parthenon in beige, pink and blue cement.

    The statuary was fairly bought and paid for…in some cases, just before it was broken up for mortar. The most compelling part of the Greek claim is that they were bought from the occupying Turks, but chances are, had they not been removed, they simply wouldn’t exist any more.

    This is part (the most striking part) of a larger movement of artwork and artifacts around the world, as originating countries suddenly discover the value of their own culture. Or realize that museums bring tourists. Or regret their great-great-grandfathers didn’t stick our great-great-grandfathers for a better price.

    When is a sale not a sale? When you live in an era of cultural mulligans and “do-overs” .

  • Kirk Parker

    > I don’t suppose that anybody outside Britain or
    > Greece has even heard of the Elgin Marbles

    Whoa, thanks for the dis, man!

    -Kirk (American and B.A in classics graduate!)

    P.S. My pretend pique aside, I say bully for Mr. McGregor! And thanks for bringing his statement to my attention.

  • Antoine Clarke

    You belittle the reputation of the Elgin Marbles, they are on every educated person’s “must see” list for visiting London.
    As for some EU diktat, I think not, if the Louvre for instance had to hand over to ‘country of origin’, there’d be nothing left inside. The Venus of Milo, the Mona Lisa to name but the two most famous pieces, would not be given up lightly.
    I once saw a painting of the Parthenon as it was shortly before Greek terrorists blew it up. The Turks had actually left it in better shape than some regimes I could mention. I would go so far as to suggest that it is the Greek government that ought to apologise for its progenitors Philistine behaviour.

  • Have the Greeks ever actually offered to _buy_ these marbles back, or are they just demanding they be turned over for free?

  • My apologies to Kirk and everybody else for a rather presumptuous opening to my post.

    No offence was intended, rather an assumption on my part that the Elgin Marbles was simply not a matter of interest to anyone outside the UK. Clearly that is wrong (I’m pleased to note).

  • If there was an EU diktat, France would ignore it and London’s museums would be emptied, since we seem to obey every one.

    If it was put in place, I expect that it would be geared towards colonial seizures rather than European artefacts. The Elgin Marbles, as a cause celebre, would fall under the former category, as a concession to the Greeks.

  • Tom

    My only qualm about keeping the Elgin Marbles on the grounds that Lord Elgin preserved them from their feckless hosts in the early 19th Century is that this sounds a bit like the sort of arguments governments use when they compulsorily purchase a chunk of private property.

    Whatever the practical benefits of keeping the marbles in Britain, I don’t, as a defender of property rights, feel 100 pct happy with how they got to be here in the first place. After all, it would be hard to square the acquisition of the marbles with a libertarian theory about justice in acquisition (a la Robert Nozick).

  • The marbles EU directive is currently in preperation. Currently Greece is about to destroy its last remaining living heritage by accepting an EU ruling that criminalises Mt Athos and its men only stance. OK so its populateed by a bunch of odd blokes in big hats and beards, but it has managed to keep in situ and venerated the worlds greatest collection of icons. Not as dry as dust museum pieces, but as objects of incredible religious and spiritual power. This of course will not do

  • Andrew Brooks

    I visited the British Museum several years ago (before the re-do of the entranceway). I can only hope the conservation is better now then it was when I visited.

    If you are blessed to be able to haul back to London most of the cultural patrimony of the known world, you have a responsiblity to take care of it once it hits London.

    I know funding is a problem (and probably better in the UK then Greece), but I could have reached out and rubbed the Rosetta Stone for gosh sakes. I _did_ rub 3000 year old winged lions (what are those things called?) from Babylon.

    Where is the Getty Trust when they are needed?

  • S. Weasel

    “I could have reached out and rubbed the Rosetta Stone for gosh sakes. I _did_ rub 3000 year old winged lions”

    If your idea of conservation is not letting mere mortals near anything, you must’ve loved Stonehenge.

    About 3,000 years old, those Assyrian statues. Must’ve been rubbed thousands of times. Did the bottom, human-reachable bits look noticeably less well-preserved than the top, un-reachable bits?

    Years ago, I watched a TV program about the difficulty of preserving paintings on the outside of a certain temple in Egypt. The carbon dioxide from tourists’ breath was supposedly ruining them. To highlight the damage, the conservator hauls out this big wooden ladder, smacks it upside the outside wall and climbs up to point it out.

    No lie, which do you think is more destructive…CO2 or being thumped with a piece of wood?

  • Andrew Brooks

    Sadly, I am old enough to remember wandering around Stonehenge before that was limited only to Druids (I was a young child at the time).

    One ought to try to be a good steward of important cultural artifacts. CO2 and humidity, wood ladders, or other wear and tear on the few items which wonderously manage to last through millenia (usually by accident) should be minimized when possible – which is why I rather think the Elgin Marbles should stay where they are (_they_ are mounted very nicely in the Brit. Musuem). There is just so much more work that also needs doing.

  • Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    The British government should offer to return the Elgin Marbles to the government from whom Lord Elgin purchased them, Turkey. As American allies, perhaps, Britain and Turkey could consider them part of the payment the Turks require to accommodate US troops in the impending Iraq campaign. Given that alternative, the Greeks would doubtless prefer to see them remain in the British Museum.

  • Joy

    I don’t suppose that anybody outside Britain or
    > Greece has even heard of the Elgin Marbles

    Au contraire. When I was in London 3 years ago for a very short visit, they were at the top of my list of things to see. Marvellous experience, and I support McGregor. Keep the Marbles exactly where they are, and shere they belong.

  • Joy

    I don’t suppose that anybody outside Britain or
    > Greece has even heard of the Elgin Marbles

    Au contraire. When I was in London 3 years ago for a very short visit, they were at the top of my list of things to see. Marvellous experience, and I support McGregor. Keep the Marbles exactly where they are, and where they belong.

  • cj

    Hey, what’s that about nobody outside Britain or Greece has even heard of the Elgin Marbles?!! I’m from Olathe, KS, USA and I sought them out at the British Museum during a visit in August 2002.

    The Rosetta Stone and many other artifacts are now perserved behind plexiglass.

    Of course, there is good ol’ self-discipline re: not touching artifacts, too!

  • cj

    Uhm, make that…preserved!