Michael Wood on the future of the Parthenon Sculptures
"The case is unique: the sculptures are bound up with Greek identity," writes Michael Wood
Just before the first lockdown, I went to see the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum with a Greek friend. Though I had never been happy about them being in London, it was a visceral shock to see them through Greek eyes. The Parthenon Sculptures (let’s call them as they should be named) seemed diminished in the austere Duveen Gallery on a cold Bloomsbury afternoon, rather than in the light of Attica. The feeling was inescapable. They are in the wrong place.
Of course, the museums created in the colonial era are full of treasures from other countries looted by Europeans. Calls for the return of artefacts are growing everywhere as the world wakes up to what the European powers did during the age of imperialism. Indeed, some of the so-called Benin Bronzes seized during the punitive raid of 1897 have been handed back to Nigeria, with more to follow.
The case of the Parthenon Sculptures, though, is unique. They are bound up with Greek identity. As the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said, they are the pre-eminent symbol of the link between the Greek people and their past. Built in the age of Pericles, the Parthenon was the city shrine of Athens – the greatest ancient centre of Greek culture. Later a church, then a mosque, it remained largely intact until it was blown up in a siege in 1687. The sculptures were removed by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805, during the period when Greece was occupied by the Turks.
Listen: Bronwen Everill discusses the creation of the Benin Bronzes and current debates over their repatriation, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Soon after, in 1821, the Greek War of Independence began – the first of the great modern liberation movements, fought with incredible courage and resolution on the part of the Greek people. The Parthenon symbolised what Greece meant not only to them but to the whole world. So for the small state that gained independence in 1832 – albeit without the north, without Crete and the Dodecanese, and without Constantinople, the “capital of memory”, which never came back – one of the first acts was to restore the Acropolis and its shattered temple of Athena.
During the Second World War it was suggested that the sculptures should be returned; nothing came of that. My feeling now is that we should make it happen. Let’s not see it as a concession made through gritted teeth, but as a magnanimous act by the British people that acknowledges our historic debt to Greece. It will make the UK feel good; it will make the world a better place. Dare I even suggest that the move could be a plus for the vaunted “Global Britain”?
Boris Johnson has previously stated his opposition to the sculptures’ return. They belong to the world, he has argued, and London is as good a place as any for them to remain. By far the best place, though, is surely Athens, where all the sculptures could be united under one roof in the beautiful museum? The prime minister has also expressed concerns that moving the sculptures would enfeeble the British Museum’s collection. But would it? Most people do not go to the British Museum to see the sculptures, whereas they are uniquely important to Greeks. Indeed, in my view, its status as “Museum of the World” would be enhanced by such a gesture: it would emphasise that the sculptures are the legacy of all humanity, and that giving them back is the right thing to do. Times and attitudes have changed.
- Alex von Tunzelmann on statues: “Debates about statues are often posed in simplistic primary colours”
So I propose two points to ponder. First, we should see this as an international effort. Though most of the sculptures are in London and Athens, there are pieces in the Vatican, the Louvre, Vienna, Würzburg and Copenhagen. Let’s give them all back, so everyone contributes.
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Second, consider the timescale. The 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence has just been celebrated. The war ended in 1829, and the Treaty of Constantinople gave Greece her freedom in 1832. Now, 10 years may seem a long time to wait, but repatriation will take time. So let’s start talking now and build up to a great celebration of the Greek spirit on the 2032 anniversary. By that time, the sculptures could have been installed in sight of the Acropolis where they were created almost 2,500 years ago – back in the divine light of Attica.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine