To keep the Elgin Marbles is to keep our British values
As with many cyclical events, the Elgin Marbles are again on the pages of newspapers and magazines. According to most of them, there is now a rising sentiment in favour of sending these astonishing sculptures back to Athens.
Adding fuel to the fire, the announcement last week that the Horniman museum is giving back to Nigeria ownership of 72 so-called Benin bronzes has raised the temperature of the debate over restitution and repatriation even higher, as if we needed this in the middle of a heatwave. There have been calls to hand back the Marbles and to be happy with replicas and 3D experiences in the name of some never clearly specified “British values”.
This claim that the repatriation of the works of Phidias to Greece would be a tribute to British values is surprising, especially since it is my opinion that it is precisely because of some of those British values that we should keep the Elgin Marbles.
This story should rank high among the many examples of British ingenuity, and yet it is something we are constantly told we should be ashamed of
The salient points of the matter have been hotly debated for two centuries, but they can be summarised as follows: Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, obtained by the deputy-Grand Vizir permission to remove stones with figures and inscriptions from the Acropolis of Athens, back then a military installation, with the intention of promoting the arts and the industries of Britain. With this permission and concerned about the poor state of the ruins, he took what he could and – during a period of 10 years and through great personal sacrifice – he brought the sculptures to England. Once home, oppressed by financial difficulties, he sold the collection to the Nation, which bought and transferred their ownership to the British Museum by an Act of Parliament in 1816.
This story should rank high among the many examples of British ingenuity, and yet it is something we are constantly told by a vocal minority we should be ashamed of. This minority would have us believe that Elgin did not have permission, despite there being evidence and testimonies to the contrary. They would like us to question Elgin’s motives against all surviving accounts of Elgin’s own words. They would dispute the right of the Sublime Porte to dispose of the stones on the Acropolis, forgetting that the territory we now call Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire just as well as Wales was a part of the British Empire.
To defend the right of the British Museum to keep those timeless products of human genius in trust for us all is to defend the British values that are exemplified in Lord Elgin’s story. We have a man accused without proof and condemned without a fair trial. Instead of presuming him innocent, his enemy would slander him and the entire nation he belongs to, during his life and well beyond. Unhappy with the job, these people would contest his right to dispose of his own property freely, questioning his motives at every step in a manner they would not tolerate if it were to be applied to their own asset movements. At the same time, they quibble over the right of a sovereign state to do with its property, even questioning its territorial integrity in an unacceptable and anachronistic fashion.
Poll after poll, one newspaper article after the other, the British public opinion is being skillfully led into supporting an action that is against its own identity as a nation founded upon the Classical heritage and its most sacred civic values of liberty and the rule of law. One can only hope that Parliament, in its wisdom, will defend its own acts, preserving at the same time the most British value of them all: the primacy of democracy against mob rule.
Dr Mario Trabucco della Torretta is a classical archaeologist specialising in ancient Greek sculpture and architecture.
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