Returning the Elgin Marbles is the right thing to do
Brexit has reignited debate about the return of the Elgin Marbles. Their return to Greece may happen sooner than we realise, writes Margaret Ferrier MP.
In the early 1800s, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, gained access to the Temple of the Parthenon and other buildings which comprised the Acropolis in Athens. With a team of assistants, Thomas Bruce removed many items of significant cultural interest, including 57 slabs from the frieze of the Parthenon, transporting them to Britain between 1802 and 1812.
To this day, the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles are one of the British Museum’s most well-known artefacts. The actions of Elgin over 200 years ago, and the status of the artefacts he removed from the Parthenon, have sparked one of the most controversial cultural debates in human history. Although the legality of what Elgin did remains hotly disputed, the Marbles have remained the property of the British Museum ever since the House of Commons voted to purchase the Marbles in 1816.
Those who argue that the Marbles should remain in Britain cite cultural preservation as a key reason. The Universal Museum argument, put forward by the British Museum and many other major museums, effectively places immediate cultural preservation above considerations of the circumstances in which treasures and other artefacts of major cultural significance were acquired.
I have some sympathy with the general point that many of the world’s cultural treasures would have been lost if they had not been rescued from destruction. In unstable or war-torn countries, we have all watched in horror as UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been at the wrong end of bombs and bullets. Daesh’s wanton destruction of Palmyra, the Great Mosque of Aleppo and the old city of Damascus, is to name but a few of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that have suffered in the brutal conflict in Syria.
However, comparing what has happened in Syria with the proposed repatriation of the Elgin Marbles would be comparing apples and oranges. Both Greece and the UK can offer outstanding facilities to preserve the Marbles for generations to come, so the argument comes down to whether or not art needs to be appreciated in its full and original context. In the case of the Parthenon Marbles, placing them a few short miles from their original location in the Acropolis Museum, where they can be appreciated and admired the world over, is the right thing to do.
There is a new political imperative to this debate. Last week the UK Government published its much-awaited mandate for trade negotiations from the EU. Reading the UK Government’s wish list for a Canada-style trade deal confirmed my fears for the economic impact of Brexit on my constituents. But Brexit also reveals the delusions of grandeur on the part of the UK Government, as it will expose the power imbalance we face in the negotiations with the EU27. The EU is also preparing for trade negotiations, and a draft version of the agreement includes a provision for both the UK and EU to “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin”, much to the surprise of observers but highlighting that trade negotiations don’t necessarily hinge on economic considerations.
Given the mood music from Brussels and from the Greek Government, calls for the Elgin Marbles’ return may prove irresistible as we get into the details of our future trading arrangements with the EU27. Whether by intention or by accident, the Elgin Marbles may end up returning to Greece in circumstances that we never previously imagined.
Margaret Ferrier is SNP MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.