Friday, 24 January 2014
Why Britain won’t return the Parthenon Marbles
I referred a little while ago (in this post) to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC drama documentary on the Parthenon Marbles and the controversy over whether the British Museum should keep them or return them to Greece. The film, which is above in full, was made in 2004, so it’s somewhat out of date, particularly since, in 2009, the Acropolis Museum opened, to much acclaim, and overcame the argument the British Museum has made about Greece not having a suitable space to display the sculptures should they be repatriated.
I have to admit I can’t get that worked up about the Parthenon Marbles controversy, but I do know a shabby and deceitful case when I see one, and shabbiness and deceit is precisely what characterises the case of those who support the retention of the Marbles in London.
In the film, apart from the now defunct argument that Greece has nowhere suitable to house the Parthenon Marbles, the gist of the case for keeping them at the British Museum consists of the following: the Marbles don’t have a national identity and are not just part of Greek culture, they’re a part of world culture, while Greek attachment to the Marbles is contrived, a product of Hellenic jingoism.
Indeed, Graham-Dixon suggests at one point that Greece’s desire to have the Marbles returned reflects an unhealthy nationalistic obsession with the fifth century BC.
‘There is a danger,’ Graham-Dixon says, ‘of plucking this one moment, this fifth century BC moment, out of the vast multicultural continuum of the history of the Greek lands and elevating it to canonical status. By wiping out the intervening two thousand years of history, there is a risk of disenfranchising all sorts of modern Greek citizens – Jews, Muslims – whose cultures have also made a contribution to the history of modern Greece.’
All of this is complete nonsense and disguises the real reasons the British authorities won’t return the Marbles to Greece and these are mainly:
1. Returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece would diminish the status of the British Museum. Visitor numbers would decline and the British Museum would suffer financially.
2. The UK doesn’t want to be seen giving in to a country that it regards as beneath it. As one contributor suggests in the film, can we really imagine Britain refusing to return the sculptures if they belonged to France? Of course not. Simply, Britain doesn’t regard Greece as its equal and won’t accept being outdone by it.