Ancient History & Civilisation



In the spring of 1816 a galaxy of British artists were called to give evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Commons which had been appointed ‘to enquire whether it be expedient that the Collection mentioned in the Earl of Elgin’s petition … should be purchased on behalf of the Public, and, if so, what Price may be reasonable to allow for the same.’ Should the government buy Elgin’s marbles? The Committee wanted some straight answers from the artists. Exactly how good were these sculptures? How did they rate against other masterpieces of classical art? In particular, how did they compare with those two masterpieces of the Vatican collection and the favourites of every gentleman and connoisseur – the ‘most sublime’ (as Winckelmann had it) Apollo Belvedere and that writhing mass of human bodies and snakes known as Laocoon? The Committee also had a hard nose for the financial side of the deal. How did the cash value of what Elgin was offering compare with that of the other great collections recently acquired for the British Museum? Sir Charles Townley’s collection of Roman sculpture had been bought for £20,000; the sculpted frieze from the fifth-century temple of Apollo at Bassae in the Peloponnese (reputedly designed by the same architect as the Parthenon) had been knocked down for £15,000. Were Elgin’s marbles worth more or less? And if more, how much more?


20. This figure from the east pediment was identified as Theseus or Hercules in the nineteenth century. More recently the god Dionysus has been thought a more likely candidate (it all rather depends what you make of the animal skin on which he is leaning – panther? lion?). Though hugely admired, the weathered surface of the sculpture and the missing hands and feet were quite unlike the image of classical perfection that early nineteenth-century taste would have expected.

Most of the artists gushed with enthusiasm for the Parthenon sculptures, but were shifty when it came to the details. John Flaxman, for example, could not quite bring himself to rate the metopes and frieze higher than Laocoon. When pushed to rank the Apollo Belvedere against the figure from the east pediment then known either as the ‘Hercules’ or ‘Theseus’ (the only figure, apart from the horses, still complete with its head (Illustration 20)), he wriggled. They were so different that it was hard to make a judgement. The Hercules was terribly corroded; and, in any case, how could you ever compare an Apollo with a Hercules? (‘The Apollo Belvidere [sic] is a divinity of a higher order than the Hercules.’) So, yes, as he finally admitted, he did prefer the Apollo, even though ‘I believe it is only a copy’. Others hedged their bets differently. Joseph Nollekens was happy to rate the Theseus as equal to the Apollo Belvedere, but not greater. Richard Westmacott, on the other hand, preferred the Theseus to the Apollo, but was much less certain whether it outranked Laocoon. And so on. In general, though, the Committee could only have come away with the impression that the artistic establishment thought these sculptures a tremendous catch. Even the well-known doubters cast their doubts in a relatively low key. Richard Payne Knight, who was reputed to believe the whole collection Roman (and had teased Elgin to that effect at a notorious dinner party) came out with some surprisingly mellow answers. Some of the sculptures from the pediments were, he continued to insist, added in the reign of Hadrian. Some of the metopes were very poor and some were possibly later additions; ‘but the best of them I consider as the best works of high relief’. The frieze was certainly of ‘high antiquity’ and to be counted in ‘the first class of low relief’.

The problems the artists faced in answering the Committee’s questions were not simply caused by their reluctance to produce a crude rank order of works of art for a group of literal-minded Members of Parliament. All of these men had been brought up to admire such celebrity pieces as the Apollo and Laocoon, Roman sculptures (possibly, as Flaxman believed, copies or versions of earlier Greek work), discovered in Italy during the Renaissance and highly restored, to a particular image of perfection, by the best sculptors of the day. They were quite unlike these battered, incomplete fragments that were among the first sculptures from the supposed acme of classical Greece that any of these experts had ever seen – aggressively unrestored and palpably the products of a radically different aesthetic from all their old favourites. Flaxman was not just trying to avoid the question when he protested that you really could not rank the Hercules/Theseus against Apollo; it would be rather like asking a modern artist whether to rate Picasso’s Guernica above or below Botticelli’s Primavera.

The same issues lay behind their reluctance to attach even a relative cash value to the marbles. Here the artists squirmed even more awkwardly. Were the marbles worth more or less than the £20,000 that had been paid for Sir Charles Townley’s collection? Today that question would seem hardly worth posing. Townley was one of the busiest eighteenth-century collectors, avidly buying up sculpture from dealers in Rome, most of it small scale, much of it imaginatively restored, some of it arguably fake. His collection is a priceless document of the taste and passions of an eighteenth-century connoisseur, but is now in a completely different league from the Elgin Marbles – as its present accommodation in the British Museum only too clearly indicates (not the vast shrine that houses the marbles, but a gloomy basement, little visited and usually the first gallery to be closed if there is any shortage of staff). In 1816 the comparison seemed a trickier issue. A number of the artists and other critics agreed that, from an artistic point of view, Elgin’s collection was much the more valuable. But commercially, they felt, the Townley collection would fetch more. The pieces were, after all, complete, and they could be sold off individually. Nobody thought there was much chance of a collector paying any great price for some of the battered fragments that Elgin had brought home.

Lord Elgin was asking for £74,000. He himself gave evidence to the Select Committee at the very beginning of their proceedings. It was then almost 20 years since he had set off to become British ambassador to the Sultan’s court; in the meantime he had gained a vast collection of sculpture (the tail end of which arrived in London only in 1815), and lost almost everything else. He had left his position in Constantinople as early as January 1803, while his agents were still hard at work on the Acropolis. From there on, every kind of disaster struck: he was imprisoned by the French on his way home in the midst of the Napoleonic War; he lost his wife, who fell for a kindly (or predatory) neighbour during his absence; he was close to bankruptcy, thanks to the cost of acquiring the marbles, paying the wages of his men, arranging storage and transport, plus the interest on his loans. When he offered the collection to the British government, he reckoned that £74,000 would just about cover his expenses. The Select Committee would have none of it. They recommended, and parliament endorsed, the purchase of the marbles – but at the price of only £35,000. Elgin probably had no option but to accept.

The House of Commons debate which ratified the purchase by a large majority in June 1816 is striking for its sheer modernity. Though cast in the distinctive jargon of the early nineteenth century, it reveals an intense anxiety about what we would call ‘sleaze’ (in particular, whether Elgin had taken improper advantage of his position of ambassador to obtain his firman). Doubts were also raised about the economic constraints. Was a collection of ancient sculpture not so much a triumphalist prize to celebrate the nation’s victory, but a luxury that the exchequer could ill afford in the aftermath of the extremely expensive Napoleonic War? Or, as a contemporary cartoon by George Cruikshank pictured it, was Elgin pushing his luck in attempting to sell his ‘stones’ to a starving John Bull, who would have preferred the £35,000 spent on bread? But beyond these familiar themes of parliamentary debate, almost every political and cultural argument that has since been used for or against the return of the marbles to Greece, or their retention in the British Museum, got a public airing. These included not only the legality of Elgin’s actions and the question of where the sculpture would be best looked after, but also some of the earliest expressions of the philhellenic idea that the sculptures simply did not ‘belong’ in England.

One of the Members of Parliament, Mr Hugh Hammersley, reporting rumours that the Russians were about to intervene in favour of Greek independence and to establish one of their own princelings on the new Greek throne, suggested an amendment to the Select Committee’s report. Why not offer Elgin £25,000 for his pains and keep the marbles in trust until ‘they are demanded by the present, or any future, possessors of the city of Athens’? The response to this amendment was the ridicule that Hammersley must have expected. Sending the marbles back to those who had wilfully damaged them would have been bad enough; but, as the next speaker huffed and puffed, the suggestion that the British should keep them in trust for the Russians was ‘one of the most absurd ever heard in the House’. For us it is a neat reminder that proposals to repatriate the marbles began even before Parliament had made its final decision to buy them for the nation. Their presence in Britain has never been uncontested or uncontroversial.


In 1817 the Elgin Marbles were put on view to the public in a temporary room hurriedly erected at the old British Museum in Montagu House. Here the sculptures from the Parthenon jostled with many of the other antiquities that had ended up, thanks to his agents, in Elgin’s packing cases: not just the famous caryatid from the porch of the Erechtheion, but some bits and pieces from Mycenae, a whole variety of architectural fragments, some plaster casts of other material not removed from Greece, as well as a notable statue of the god Dionysus from a monument on the Acropolis slopes. In fact, as contemporary paintings show, pride of place in the new room went to the Dionysus, who stood in the apse at one end, supported by a column capital from the Parthenon. On either side were two reclining male figures, one from the west and one (Theseus/Hercules) from the east pediment, and leading up to this ensemble was a long gallery, lined with the metopes, frieze and the various other casts and fragments. No attempt was made to recapture the original placement of the sculpture, nor to separate what belonged to the Parthenon from the rest. It was a ‘picturesque’ arrangement, whose main purpose was to provide the most congenial atmosphere for artists to draw. Many of the most famous pieces were fixed on to swivelling bases, so that they could be moved to catch the best light (Illustration 21).

There is a world of difference between this and the spotless, austere regime in place today, in the custom-built gallery financed by Joseph Duveen in the 1930s (though not regularly open to the public until 1962). In the intervening years, different arrangements of the marbles were proposed and sometimes bitterly debated by the museum curators. And a whole series of new styles of display was attempted and contested – each one reflecting not just changing fashion, but changing understanding of the objects themselves and of the museum’s role in presenting and interpreting them. The debates were so intense and the process of decision-making so slow that the marbles seem to have spent many years of the nineteenth century lying around the museum ‘in the course of rearrangement’. Understandably perhaps – since, underneath some of the apparently petty squabbles, crucial questions were at stake. Were the Elgin Marbles to be seen as ‘great art’? Or as part of the grand historical development of world culture that the British Museum documented? And what difference did that make to their style of display? Should the museum be stressing the original architectural context in which the sculptures were first displayed? Should it be teaching its visitors about the Parthenon as a whole, not just displaying the masterpieces that once decorated it? Or was the aesthetic power of the sculptures alone to be the leading principle?

There were no easy answers. For much of the nineteenth century it might look as if the trend was towards an increasingly archaeological and didactic style of display. From the moment that the sculptures were moved into their first ‘permanent’ gallery in 1832 in Robert Smirke’s new museum building, the various elements of the Parthenon itself were more coherently arranged. The figures from the pediment, for example, were placed together on plinths in more or less their ‘correct’ order. By the 1850s some of the museum staff were arguing that they should be shown inside a frame that copied the distinctive shape of the pediment, or even fixed high up so that they could be seen ‘correctly’ from below. A famous anecdote about a learned German visitor who had been forced to lie down on the floor to capture the right angle of vision was wheeled out in support of this kind of radical change. Meanwhile models of the Parthenon, as ruin and as reconstructed, were introduced into the gallery. And, in order to make it easier to understand the whole of the sculptural scheme, plaster casts of what remained in Athens were systematically incorporated into the display. This was partly a question of inserting casts of sections of the frieze that were needed to complete the narrative. But it could also mean attaching the cast of a missing foot or arm directly on to the ancient marble. For us, the single most surprising feature of this early display of the Parthenon sculpture is the prominence it gave to plaster copies; about 60 per cent of the frieze on show was original, about 40 per cent plaster cast.


21. The Elgin Marbles in their first temporary accommodation in the British Museum, surrounded by an admiring throng of staff from the museum and its library, plus the artist Benjamin West (seated centre left), the President of the Royal Academy. The centrepiece sculpture in the apse is a statue of Dionysus (not from the Parthenon itself). This is flanked on the right by Theseus/Hercules (Illustration 20) and the horse of the moon (Illustration 16); on the left by a figure of a ‘river god’ (?) from the west pediment.


22. The architect’s scheme for the Duveen Gallery. Predictably enough, Duveen called the tune with the choice of architect (an American, J. Russell Pope). The plans went through various stages before the scheme shown here was approved. The museum authorities were worried that the sculpture appeared too remote from the visitor and that it was dominated by the gallery’s architecture.

But this didactic imperative never entirely won out. It was always held in check by the competing pressure to display the marbles as ‘great art’. So, for example, no sooner had the helpful model of the reconstructed Parthenon been introduced into the gallery than it was hastily removed to the basement. It simply did not come up to the required aesthetic standard; or, as the keeper of the day put it, ‘the coarseness of its execution and the restored portions [are] quite unworthy of the original remains’. And in the 1850s there was a serious proposal that the Parthenon sculptures (and other major sculpture in the British Museum) should be transferred to a new National Gallery, to be displayed side by side with masterpieces of painting. One of those who were called in to advise and strongly opposed any such mixture of media was the elderly Leo von Klenze, gallery designer for Ludwig of Bavaria and renowned architect, whom we last met as mastermind of the Acropolis pageant in 1834.

The proposal failed. But some 70 years later, in 1928, an official report on the display of the Parthenon sculpture was happy to start from the assumption that the marbles were ‘primarily works of art’, and that ‘their present educational use’ is ‘by comparison, accidental and trivial’. These were the carefully chosen words of a highbrow committee (consisting of three heavyweight classical archaeologists) who went on to recommend a crucial change in the layout of the material in the museum. No longer were the sculptures to be supplemented with plaster casts. ‘The juxtaposition’, they wrote, ‘of marble and plaster is bound to be inharmonious’; the originals, fragmentary as they were, ought to be viewed and admired without any such distraction. The recently retired Keeper of Antiquities instantly saw the point. It was a victory for the transcendent quality of original masterpieces over completeness, context and history; it was a victory for the Parthenon as sculpture over the Parthenon as building. It implied, he observed (not entirely accurately, given the century of fierce debates), ‘a reversal of the policy that has been pursued for about a hundred years’.

The current display in the Duveen Gallery represents a predictably awkward compromise between these two different imperatives (Illustration 22). The sheer vastness of the gallery space signals the cultural and artistic importance of the works of art housed within it; no visitor could fail to see that they were supposed to admire. Context, history and casts (now including a hands-on display for the blind) are part of the show, but firmly relegated to two side-rooms next to the main entrance; they are not to encroach on the original marbles. The layout of the gallery does indeed gesture towards the architectural coherence of the monument itself: the pediments stand at each end of the room; the frieze runs around the central space (albeit turned ‘inside out’, to face inwards rather than outwards, as it did in its original position). But the real trick of the arrangement is to present the Elgin Marbles as if they were a complete set. Casual observers would never guess that a substantial section of the frieze still remained in Athens. And, if the architect’s original plans had been followed, they would hardly have noticed that much of the east pediment was missing either. It was only the purists among the museum staff who insisted on leaving a tell-tale gap on the plinths to mark where the key central figures had been lost. Overall the effect (and the intention) of the gallery design is to efface what remains in Athens. If the earlier regimes of display repeatedly and explicitly referred the viewer to the monument in Greece and its surviving sculpture, the Duveen effect is to squeeze that memory out. The Elgin Marbles are here meant to stand for the Parthenon itself.


The interventions of Joseph Duveen – an immensely rich and not entirely scrupulous art dealer – have become notorious in the history of the Parthenon sculptures. Anxious for that combination of immortality and respectability that only lavish public benefactions can buy, he ploughed money into various major projects in London galleries as well as providing new accommodation for the Elgin Marbles. Progress at the British Museum was much slower than he had hoped. Although the project had been dreamt up and the funding promised in the late 1920s, it was not until 1936 that the building land had been acquired and work started on what was to become the Duveen Gallery. By that stage Duveen was terminally ill (he died in 1939) and, one would guess, more than usually demanding and difficult to deal with. Somehow or other (most likely through tiresome persistence) he and his agents managed to get hold of keys to the relevant museum galleries and to enjoy virtually free access to the Parthenon sculptures which were being prepared for their new installation. They also seem to have taken direct control of some of the museum’s assistants and technicians.

Or so at least the director concluded, after he had wandered through the workshops in the museum basement one Sunday night in September 1938 and noticed on a bench a group from the east pediment, the Sun and his horses; it was obviously ‘in process of cleaning’. As the official report on the incident continues, ‘he observed a number of copper tools and a piece of coarse carborundum, and from the appearance of the sculptures he at once saw that the tools had been used on the sculptures’. The next day two other figures from the pediment, including the famous horse of the Moon, were found to be undergoing similar treatment elsewhere in the museum. ‘The Director ordered all further cleaning operations to be stopped and instituted an inquiry into what had occurred.’

The bare outline is clear enough. Duveen wanted the works of art in his new gallery to look the part: pure, white and classical. The Elgin Marbles were not only dirty (a combination of London smog and the museum’s heating system), they were also covered in various places with an orange-brown ‘patina’ or ‘coating’. Duveen’s agents asked the museum’s workmen to give them a good clean, while the curators for whatever reason turned a blind eye, over a period of more than a year. Copper tools and carborundum were, obviously, inappropriate instruments to use on the sculpture – even though, it is important to remember, ancient marble used often to be cleaned much more abrasively than we would expect today (Michelangelo’s David was scrubbed with wire-wool in the nineteenth century and, as late as the 1950s, the sculptures of the Theseum were given a rough treatment similar to Duveen’s by an American team working in Athens). The internal investigation prompted a good deal of buck-passing and self-interested exculpation, but heads did, discreetly, roll and ‘remedial measures’ (the phrase alone makes you shudder) were taken on the marbles.

It was not, however, kept out of the press, where the usual range of up-market hacks and professional letter-writers pondered on quite how much of the ‘patina’ had been lost and from where. The sculptor Jacob Epstein thundered characteristically: ‘Why a cleaner and six hefty men should be allowed for fifteen months to tamper with the Elgin Marbles … passes the comprehension of a sculptor’. The travel writer Robert Byron, no relation to the poet despite the name (which none the less stood him in very good stead in Greece), lost no opportunity to swipe at Elgin and to point out that ‘for a hundred years the London atmosphere has been encrusting those once sun-kissed figures with a sheath of corrosive soot’. Others, self-styled philistines, wondered what all the fuss was about. As the Star reported in March 1939, ‘somebody … started giving these B.M. marbles a wash and brush up, thus jeopardising, in the opinion of some, the exquisite patina – the accumulation of grime caused by long exposure to atmosphere. Like mouldy bits of gorgonzola, this patina is much admired by artistic epicures.’ Inevitably questions were asked in Parliament, but by the summer of 1939 most people had more important things on their minds. As the marbles were sandbagged and later carted off to safe keeping, divided between the museum basement and Aldwych underground station, the issues of the ‘cleaning’ were largely forgotten; as they were also when the sculptures were eventually returned to permanent display in the ‘new’ Duveen Gallery in 1962.

This story, however, has an unexpected sequel. In the late 1990s Duveen’s cleaning was unearthed and re-investigated by a distinguished scholar working on the history of Elgin’s collection. By the time it had reached the press, the whole affair was treated not merely as a salutary lesson in the dangers that millionaire benefactors can bring to a museum and its contents (though that is probably the story’s most significant moral). It turned from a cock-up into a major conspiracy, a dreadful secret of the British Museum that had been revealed, 60 years later, for the very first time. No one, of course, cared to remember the pages of newspaper coverage and parliamentary questions of the 1930s. To its credit (even if some felt that the gesture came a little too late for comfort), the British Museum responded by holding an international conference in 1999 to try to get to the bottom of the events of 1938. Members of the Greek archaeological service came to debate the issues with scholars from Britain, Germany and the United States, in the presence of several hundred neutral and not-so-neutral experts and observers. Top of the agenda were two questions. What exactly was the orange-brown coating on the Parthenon marbles, both in Athens and London? And what damage was done under Duveen’s auspices?

The surfaces of the Elgin Marbles are the product of more than two millennia of treatment, cleaning, assault, weathering and decay. It is now next to impossible to reconstruct how the marble looked when the building was first built. The sculptures were presumably painted (but how much and how garishly remains an open question); they would also have featured various attachments – metal fittings for the horses’ harnesses on the frieze and a variety of accessories, from metal belts to weaponry, for the divine and human figures. But most of the original surface is long lost. Even if it had survived to the beginning of the nineteenth century (which is itself extremely unlikely), there is no chance that much of the pristine surface could have withstood whatever ‘wash and brush-up’ Elgin’s men administered, the perils of their journey to England (which for one consignment included a short time at the bottom of the sea) and the effects of taking moulds for plaster casts directly from the marble. Meanwhile in Greece wear and tear, combined with the pollution and acid rain, would have been even more corrosive for any sculptures left on the monument itself (Illustration 23).

The coating which does survive is certainly not the original surface as it would have appeared to visitors in the fifth century BC. (The Periclean Parthenon was not orange-brown.) But it is, equally certainly, ancient, for it has itself been weathered in exposed parts and various ancient repairs, alterations and adjustments to the sculptures have actually cut through it. So what is it? The old idea was that it was staining caused by iron oxide leaching out of the marble over time. But, as was agreed at the conference, that now seems most improbable. The coating is much more likely to be the product of some kind of ‘wash’ applied to the marble when it was first built, either as a base for the application of paint, or as a treatment intended to reduce the glare of the natural stone. Whatever the exact composition of this wash, in time, exposed to the open air, it turned into this distinctively coloured patina. As such it has a certain scientific interest, but it is not the ‘original surface’ in any meaningful sense of the term. At Duveen’s direct or indirect behest, along with a good deal of grime, some of this coating was removed from the sculptures. About 60 per cent of the surface of the metopes was cleaned, considerably less of the frieze and pediments – though, of course, the ‘coating’ had not survived on all the parts that were cleaned. Quite how much damage was done depends on your point of view. The fact that in 2009 clever new technology (using an infra-red detector) managed to find traces of Egyptian blue pigment on parts of the sculptures may suggest that it was even less than was originally thought by the British Museum itself. And it is significant that, until the story was publicised again in the 1990s, most visitors to the Museum (even professional archaeologists) noticed nothing wrong; such damage as there was, was not obvious. All the same, no one would now advocate such a cleaning operation, certainly not driven by a wealthy and wilful ‘benefactor’.

You could never guess from these sober, careful and altogether unsurprising conclusions quite how angry, emotional and even, at one point, almost violent the conference in 1999 was. Here was an academic discussion of an ill-judged cleaning programme of some fifth-century BC marble sculpture; the events had all happened more than 60 years before and none of the major players were still alive. Yet the conference attracted front-page press reports across Europe and widespread television coverage in Greece. Several of the participants and commentators chose to present the issues in terms that would be rhetorically more appropriate for human victims of outrage than for lumps of stone; there was talk, for example, of Duveen’s futile attempts to ‘beautify’ the marbles, which really amounted to ‘torture’ or ‘atrocity’. The final session nearly came to blows. Why? Why such a gap between the intrinsic importance of the case and the moral fervour and intensity with which it was debated?


23. The marbles left in Athens have not survived unscathed. On the left is a cast of part of the west frieze taken from a mould made by Lord Elgin’s agents. On the right, a cast made from a mould of 1872 shows the damage and deterioration of some seventy years – even before the effects of serious air pollution.



A lot of issues were in play. To some the British Museum seemed to be on the defensive. There was a whiff of conspiracy and cover-up. Those who believed that they had unearthed a hidden scandal at the heart of one of the country’s most elite institutions were committed to getting the whole affair out of proportion. But more important was the 200-year-old question of where the Elgin Marbles rightly belonged. From the early nineteenth century the issue of ‘stewardship’ has always been central to these debates. Elgin’s actions have been, and still are, regularly defended by the simple claim that the marbles have been safer in England. Left on the Acropolis, so the argument has always gone, they would have found their way into Turkish cement or been used as target practice by bored soldiers, cooped up on the hill during the War of Independence; at least in Britain they were properly looked after. Duveen’s actions opened a vulnerable chink in that otherwise strong position. Never mind the condition of the sculptures left on the Parthenon itself, the Greeks and other supporters of the return of the marbles were bound to play Duveen’s folly for all it was worth. Two centuries of British self-satisfaction had it coming.

The emotional intensity of the conference was driven by one of the most enduring cultural controversies in the modern world. Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece? This issue has become so much part of British popular culture that, over the last decade or so, it has provided the backdrop to novels and even the theme of some virtuoso internet games. Web surfers who have visited have been able to try their hand at the ingenious Elgin Marbles Game, where punters can throwelectronic marbles (the round glass variety) at the seventh Earl. Depending on where you hit poor Elgin, he shudders disquietingly or (if you are right on target) disintegrates into a macromedia display of flashing red lights. In the world of recent thrillers, Reg Gadney’s Strange Police wove a complex story of blackmail, vendetta and adultery around a Greek conspiracy to steal the marbles from the British Museum. Though armed with an impressive array of freightwagons, Chinooks and a conveniently spare Boeing, the thieves fail to prise out a single sculpture; and one of them ends up very dead on the floor of the Duveen Gallery, having suffered a nasty fall from the roof.

Among such more or less engaging fantasies, the arguments themselves have sometimes failed to match our expectations. In the recent rounds of the controversy there have certainly been some dishonourable incidents. The heat-ofthe-moment claim by one director of the British Museum that anyone who wanted to return the marbles to Greece was a ‘cultural fascist’ (‘It’s like burning books. That’s what Hitler did’) must mark, by some wide margin, the lowest point. But the self-righteousness of some of the British Left (who have found a comfortably armchair-radical cause in this particular brand of philhellenism) can be pretty hard to stomach too. Not to mention the vulgar nationalism of some of the Greek arguments, with their optimistic assurance that the inhabitants of modern Greece are the spiritual, if not literal, heirs of Pericles and his friends.

This was a claim that, inevitably, hovered at the edge of the latest round of British parliamentary discussions of the whole question of the Elgin Marbles. In summer 2000, in what seemed rather like a belated sequel to the proceedings of 1816, the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, investigating the illicit trade of cultural property, considered the case of the British Museum and the Parthenon sculptures. As before, distinguished witnesses were called. But not this time artists, sculptors and critics. It was a mark of the changed cultural and political climate that the cross-questioning was directed to three representatives of the British Museum and three representatives sent by the Greek government. If the quality of the sculpture was not on this occasion in debate (in fact one wonders how many of these expert witnesses would have been able to offer any comparison between Laocoon and the so-called ‘Theseus’), several other issues were the same – notably the old chestnuts of good care and legal ownership. Displaying a rather weaker grip on the basic facts than one might have hoped, one of the Members of Parliament asked the spokesmen of the British Museum, ‘… you say legally we hold them. Obviously, you can prove that. By what means? Is there a document? We are told there is a piece of paper somewhere. Is there such a thing?’

As Flaxman and his colleagues discovered in 1816, appearing as a witness before a parliamentary select committee can be a daunting game. In summer 2000, the representatives of the Museum stood their ground on issues of ownership calmly, refused to be drawn on comparisons between the marbles and the latest case of a tug-of-love child, and occasionally overplayed their hand. When asked, for example, about the problem of an individual piece of sculpture divided between Greece and England (‘head … here and a body and tail in Athens’), one of them suggested that the best solution was that all the pieces come to London: ‘because we feel we have a brief to communicate to a very substantial world audience and can do it better than anyone else’. No wonder ‘anyone else’ might have felt insulted.

On the other side, George Papandreou, the shrewd Greek minister, played his hand with skill. He refused to be drawn on the legality of Elgin’s actions or on questions of ‘ownership’. ‘Who owns the sculptures’, he claimed, ‘is unimportant’; what matters is where they are and how ‘we write their history for the future’. If the marbles made their ‘homecoming’ for the Olympic Games in 2004, taking pride of place in the (as yet unbuilt) new Acropolis Museum, then all kinds of new Anglo-Hellenic partnerships were in prospect, not to mention ‘a permanent spot of warmth and gratitude of the Greek people throughout the world’. It was a well-judged performance. His colleague, however, the elderly Jules Dassin, was more of a liability. Dassin had become an obligatory presence on such delegations in his role as widower of Melina Mercouri, the actress and Greek Minister of Culture who still remains the symbol of the campaign for the marbles’ return (her portrait is, significantly enough, now immortalised in the platform decoration of the Acropolis subway station in Athens). A film director, he was the closest to an artist that this select committee saw (‘certainly one of the great film directors – I will not say the greatest film director’, as Gerald Kaufman, the committee chair, introduced him, with characteristic frankness). As a witness before a parliamentary inquiry, he was out of his depth. ‘We are here all sweetness and light to talk about reconciliation,’ he oozed at one point. At another he quoted his wife’s view that Greek sculpture in a European museum was in general ‘very box office’. Not surprisingly perhaps, the committee ended up making no specific recommendations about the future of the marbles at all. Whether the discussions, for all their polite noises about ‘mutual understanding’, had any impact on this sharply polarised dispute is a moot point.


There has been one big development in the early years of this century: the British Museum has sharpened its arguments and its rhetoric. Under Neil MacGregor, the Director since 2002, the Museum is no longer the ‘grumpy old man’, waiting for the whole distasteful business to go away, hardly putting its head above the parapet except when provoked and to respond to attack. Those speaking for the Museum are not now simply refusing to part with their treasures; they are also offering positive arguments for keeping them. And they are doing this with rather more grace and charm than before – qualities with which MacGregor is more richly endowed than many of his predecessors.

True some of the old arguments, tactics and stand-offs continue. There has been another unsuccessful private members’ bill aimed at returning the marbles, and a flurry of excitement when the Museum appeared to suggest a loan of some of the sculptures to Greece, but only on condition that Greece recognised the Museum’s ownership (that is, of course, a standard condition for any such loan). Some of the stunts and publicity harp on the same old debate, but with a refreshingly twenty-first-century spin. The vacant statue plinth in Trafalgar Square was occupied for an hour in 2009 by a young campaigner, dressed in ancient Greek costume and carrying banners reading ‘Respect Culture’, ‘Return the Parthenon sculpture’ and the like. Ironically, the mastermind behind this ‘performance art’ project, allowing the public to become living sculptures on the plinth, was a trustee of the British Museum – the sculptor Antony Gormley. A few weeks later a young American classicist dressed herself up as a caryatid, one of those distinctive female statues that originally served as columns on the little temple known as the Erechtheion on the Acropolis – one of which was taken by Elgin. Standing in the rain outside the Museum and holding a placard begging ‘Please let me go home’, she was visited by MacGregor, who pronounced the protest ‘an elegant way of making her point’.

At the same time the campaign group known as the ‘British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles’ rebranded itself as the ‘British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’. Their idea was to play down the nationalist and political aspects of the struggle (little Greece versus the nasty old imperial power) – and to play up what they saw as the cultural and artistic logic of putting the Parthenon sculptures back together again. That logic was supported by clever digital technology that was able to show just how much better (they thought) it would look if the marble head of the goddess Iris in London was put back on her body in Greece, or if the two parts of the torso of Poseidon from the pediment of the building were rebonded. This new phase of the campaign was launched at a party in Westminster. Representatives of the Museum were invited along, and came – to enjoy the Greek hospitality, while listening to a series of speeches urging the removal of one of their prize possessions. The occasion hardly seemed like a prelude to much fierce conflict – though behind the scenes the reunification campaign was scoring symbolic successes internationally. The University of Heidelberg (whose ambitious vice-rector was, not coincidentally, Greek) had already returned to Greece a small, 8 × 11 centimetres, fragment of a foot from the Parthenon frieze; it had never actually been on display in Germany. Italy followed with the return of a slightly larger, 34 × 35 centimetres, fragment of foot and dress from the goddess Artemis on the frieze. ‘When we opened the crate the marble just shone … like a gem’, said the Greek archaeologist who received it, in a style worthy of Melina Mercouri.

But the more radical rebranding was that of the British Museum itself, which under MacGregor has at last found an answer to the question why the marbles should remain in London – beyond the simple law of possession. MacGregor stresses first of all the idea of the Universal Museum. What is important, he argues, is that in the British Museum the Parthenon sculptures can be seen in the context of world culture. When these masterpieces of classical Greek art are set next to the extraordinary carved reliefs put up by Assyrian kings a century or so earlier, or even when they are set next to the very different artistic traditions represented by magnificent Benin bronzes from nineteenth-century Nigeria (objects whose possession is no less contested than the marbles), they come to mean more not less. The Museum, in other words, adds meaning and value to the objects in its care. Its role is both to represent and reconfigure world culture, to encourage its visitors to make new connections across the world. ‘Repatriation is yesterday’s question’, he once boldly, or over-optimistically, said. The British Museum’s Parthenon is a part not just of Greek, but of global culture.

Hand in hand with this, he has been seeking to redefine exactly what is ‘British’ about the British Museum. Deftly exploiting the original eighteenth-century terms of the Museum’s foundation (that it is for the benefit of ‘all studious and curious persons, both native and foreign’), and celebrating the multi-cultural diversity of central London itself (where one in twenty of the population, he points out, has recently arrived from sub-Saharan Africa), he calls his institution ‘the private collection of every citizen in the world’. That is to say, by being in London, the Parthenon sculptures are not the jealously-guarded booty of a faded imperial power, but the possession and birthright of every single person on the planet. Never mind the fact that the founders of the Museum would be horrified at the extravagant multi-cultural spin given to their judicious words about ‘native and foreign’ (which were presumably meant to include the Germans and French, and other safely ‘studious’ Europeans). MacGregor’s rhetoric is a brilliant and influential attempt to reposition the Museum, as a guardian of culture and history, for the whole world.

For those who want to see the marbles back in Greece, it is also shameless and self interested. The idea of the Universal Museum, whether the British Museum, the Louvre or the Metropolitan, is just a sophistry – they argue – invented by the imperial powers, old and new, to justify hanging on to their rich pickings. This is cultural imperialism under a new name, whose pieties serve largely to deflect attention from the exploitative, sometimes illegal or violent circumstances in which the treasures were acquired. After all, as one critical commentator observed, no other countries in the world have actually asked the Museum to be a guardian of their culture. It’s a self appointed role, and one that protects the status quo.

The fact remains, most Greeks and their supporters would insist, that the marbles are dispersed across the globe, many of them thousands of miles from the building for which they were originally made. And now, in the most recent episode in the Parthenon story, there is a brand new purpose built museum waiting to give them a new home, reunited.

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