After 200 years, it’s time to seek a solution to the Elgin Marbles that works for all
It seems that Britain’s place in the world this century may well be derived from three, interlocking, factors: security and resilience to strategic challenges, risks and uncertainties; our collective prosperity and economic recovery, post-Covid and a looming recession; and national confidence and identity as we re-shape our sense of country and self in the world outside of the European Union.
To meet these challenges, values matter and provide a clear pathway to our identity as a people.
We, in the United Kingdom, should be confident and optimistic that our collective values mitigate against the risks and uncertainties of tomorrow. Those values, though anchored in the past, are not just historical phenomena: we need to celebrate our history and collective successes, acknowledging past mistakes and historical legacies, as pathways to our future.
As part of this, we may wish to dwell on the suggestion that 21 century cultural and ethical certainties do not always travel well into the past. Such a reflection might lead us to conclude that our ancestors were neither universally great nor obviously evil: rather, they were complicated women and men, specific to their time, capable of great acts of service and shocking moments of wickedness – much like their descendants today. A gentler discourse might prove balm for a world in churn and, if championed by the British, send a message about the type of people we wish to be this century.
The Parthenon Project are putting forward an exchange involving a permanent, rotating exhibition of Greek artefacts at the British Museum
In this regard, perhaps the British government could champion and facilitate the return of the, so-called, Elgin Marbles to their historical home in Greece. There are complicated legal, political and diplomatic arguments but after 200 years of debate, it’s time to seek a solution that works for all parties involved. That’s why organisations, such as newly established campaign group, The Parthenon Project, are putting forward viable and mutually beneficial options like an exchange involving a permanent, rotating exhibition of Greek artefacts at the British Museum’s Duveen Galleries, never seen before in the UK, that will attract broader audiences, especially younger generations.
Sitting alongside the artefacts could be unique replicas of the Parthenon Sculptures, crafted using modern 3D printing technologies, and a virtual reality experience immersing the visitor in the world of The Parthenon, reconstructing the story of the Marbles from antiquity to today and into the future.
The Marbles homed in Athens, linked technologically to a next-generation visitor experience and an exciting new exhibition at the British Museum in London, could transform the reputation of the museum whilst whispering to the world a narrative of British confidence and self-assurance. Values and smart geo-politics combining, perhaps, as Britain enhances an important relationship with Greece, signalling our intent to be very much still in Europe as a strategic partner to the EU and its members.
A British Museum that echoes to modern British values, through such thinking, is transformed as an iconic institution, becoming a strategic national asset and place of learning and reflection, championing both our history and sense of our future. And critically, a tool of soft power in transforming relationships with our partner nations and neighbours.
The Elgin Marbles and the British Museum’s stance on stewardship is but one example, of course, that could be considered when we discuss values and security. But it postulates and promotes our ability to rethink and reframe a supposed challenge into a major opportunity to enhance the UK’s global reputation.
Reuniting the Marbles in the manner described requires us to engage our national creativity in blending technologies to create a stunning citizen/visitor experience, whilst enhancing our reputation for thoughtful cooperation with sister nations. It stands as a timely moment for us to assert our confidence and sense of self.
Professor John Louth is former director for Industry and Society research at RUSI between 2011 and 2019.
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