Rebecca Lowe works on political and economic research issues as a consultant, and has a PhD in political philosophy.
I wrote about the ‘Elgin Marbles’ for ConHome in December 2017, arguing that their return to Greece would make a great Brexit Christmas story.
How better to underline the UK’s commitment to democracy and respect for the ‘individuated nature of nations’ than by reuniting them with the rest of the Parthenon Sculptures?
Five years on, progress seems round the corner. Perhaps this is in recognition of public support: YouGov’s latest polling suggests only 21 per cent of Britons now oppose the marbles’ return; for decades, a persistent majority has favoured it.
Perhaps it’s the growing bandwagon of politically-disparate high-profile voices — from Stephen Fry to Pope Francis to George Osborne — putting pressure on decision-makers.
Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that “negotiators for the British Museum and the Greek government have been locked in talks”. The likely outcome, bearing in mind — as emphasised by Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’s comments this week — that an Act of Parliament underwrites the British Museum’s legal claim to the marbles it holds, is that some kind of ‘exchange’ will be arranged.
This would circumvent the need for any “change in the law”, which Donnelan made clear she opposed, and enable the British Museum to return the UK-held marbles to Athens, for display in the Acropolis Museum alongside their sister sculptures already there.
Much has been written about the history of the Parthenon Sculptures’ separation. This includes claims about damage done in Britain, by what Boris Johnson unfortunately described as “manic washerwomen scrubbing [the marbles] with copper brushes”. Much has also been written about the situation’s legality, including Geoffrey Robertson’s recent appeal to international human rights law to argue for the need for cultural restitution.
But I won’t focus on history or law, here. When we consider practical moral questions, awareness of relevant history must play its part. But moral reasoning can’t amount to determining the veracity of claims about what happened. We need to apply principles and values, to assess whether what happened was right and good, and its relevance to what should happen now.
Similarly, law also can’t tell us the whole story. There are many important moral concerns that should be kept outside of law.
And the marbles’ case reminds us that, even when law is relevant, it mustn’t monopolise. It might be true that X legally owns Y, but the law involved could be bad. And it’s easy to think of paradigm instances of ownership that aren’t protected by law at all: don’t you think cavemen owned things?
So, even if you’re convinced that legal ownership of the marbles lies in England, and also that Elgin did good, you’re not inevitably opposed to their return. And I’ll assume that’s where we are: that I won’t persuade you on the legal or historical front, but you’ll listen to other arguments.
I’ll also assume you’re some kind of conservative. Maybe you’re a Scrutonite, valuing beauty and tradition; maybe you’re a Thatcherite, valuing freedom and principle; maybe you’re a One-Nationite, valuing obligation and community.
I’ll put two arguments to you. The first is a moral argument, focused on the importance of the marbles to Greece, and why you should respect that.
The key premises go something like this: 1) nations are bound by their particular value systems and traditions; 2) the Parthenon is the physical and emotional heart of Athens, a representation of Greece ancient and modern, and especially its world-leading commitment to democracy; 3) the UK is also bound by commitment to democracy, and here conservatives have often driven its promotion and protection; 4) some marble sculptures that form part of the Parthenon are being held in a British museum, in a room that leaks.
Those are the premises. You work out the conclusion.
My second argument is aesthetic, focused on the sculptures’ separation. The Parthenon was built in Athens, as part of Athens.
There’s no time here to consider the artistic intentions of its designers, or its importance to architecture as a discipline. But few would deny the Parthenon’s beauty. If you haven’t watched its Pentelic blocks change colour, subtly — and not so subtly — as the light of the day develops, then you’re missing out on one of the sensuous wonders of the world. Cool maths also underpins its visually-satisfying ratios.
Beyond bulk and outline, however, much of the Parthenon’s original impact lay in its detail. I’ll set aside how and why the sculptures were separated from the rest of the building. But the claim made by ConHome’s William Atkinson, on CapX, that moving the marbles from the British Museum to the Acropolis Museum wouldn’t count as ‘returning’ them, in part because they wouldn’t end up displayed on the Parthenon, seems self-defeating.
This is partly because it’s incoherent to talk of ‘the marbles’ and ‘the Parthenon’ as separate. The sculptures are part of the Parthenon, whether displayed as such or not. The sculptures belong together, as well as with the rest of the building.
In an ideal world, and certainly on holistic aesthetic grounds, the marbles would be displayed as part of the building; without all its parts in place, an art object can’t fully represent an artist’s intentions. But any argument depending on the idea that the ideal situation includes the marbles’ reunion with the rest of the Parthenon surely depends on the reunion of all the marbles!
I accept that the question of why the marbles can’t be displayed as part of the building is one we should ask conservationists; the British Museum claims it’s “universally recognised that the sculptures that survive are best seen and conserved in museums”.
But why would anyone who thinks that ideally the marbles would be reunited with the rest of the building oppose the return to Athens of the marbles Elgin took? Why would they prefer them to remain in London, rather than being reunited with their sister sculptures in a purpose-built glass-walled gallery several hundred meters (rather than 1,500 miles!) from the ‘rest of the building’?
I’ll finish by acknowledging that there’ll be objections made to my arguments. Some will be decent objections, which those of us calling for the marbles’ reunion should answer, and may have previously.
But, from experience, other objections will depend on xenophobic prejudice. If your opinion that the marbles should remain in Britain depends on assuming that a Greek museum is incapable of looking after them, or that modern Greece is an unworthy inheritor of its ancient city-states, or that London deserves to be the world’s cultural centre, then think about your motivations.
If you want to bite the supremacist bullet, and call for a few Western universal institutions to raid the contents of smaller national museums across the world, then go for it. But don’t call your hardcore ideologised radical views ‘conservative’.
In particular, if you claim to support democracy, respect for the kind of attachment or belonging that derives from the ‘individuated nature of nations’, or even just the value of tradition, then ask yourself: why Britain, and not Greece?