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Losing Marbles: The British Museum and Lord Elgin

Losing those Marbles: The British Museum and Lord Elgin

by Binoy Kampmark

Click to enlarge

The Elgin marbles on display at the British Museum, London

It’s never quite gone away, and the issue burns more brightly than ever now, given Greece’s insistence that it has established a solid basis for the return of the Elgin marbles, still resident in the British Museum. A superb facility, judging from reports, has been established to house the antiquities, called the New Acropolis Museum.

Naturally, the policy to return the marbles, removed by agents of Lord Thomas Elgin, British Ambassador to Constantinople between 1799 and 1803, might propel museums across the globes to part with their antiquities, though this is unlikely. The reason for returning such treasures might as well compel the Pergamon in Berlin to relinquish the Ishtar Gate to modern Iraq. As Lord Strabolgi put it rather dramatically in an exchange in the House of Lords (19 May 1997), “If we started to return works of art to other countries, there would not be much left in our museums and galleries.”

This, however, can’t get away from the fact, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a book on the subject in 1997, that the arguments of the British Museum, and indeed the establishment, “need not be good; indeed they need deploy no actual arguments at all.” There are no courts to enforce such a decision, and it has been argued that precedents are few and far between.

They do certainly exist. Institutions in England (take Cambridge University for one), restored various effects of the Kabaka of Buganda to Uganda once the country attained independence in 1964. Even the mighty British Museum has gone so far as to return various artifacts, albeit on strict conditions, one being a portion of the beard of the Sphinx in 1985.

While it is unfortunate that the British Museum’s board justified continued retention on some universal idea of art and civilization (universal, that is, as long as it is retained in London), it belies the point as to what sort of civilization they are on about. Civilization comes with its rather noxious share of disease, genocide, and booty. Plunder, or plain old cultural vandalism (suitably called ‘Elginism’), forms the basis of many a museum exhibition. An argument might be made that Elgin only ever had authority to excavate at the Parthenon, not remove sculptures. Not that this lack of legal ceremony bothered individuals such as John Keats, who waxed lyrical over the act in “Seeing the Elgin Marbles”.

The British Museum has become a repository, not merely of British indifference to the cultural demands of the Greeks, but a self-lauding effort to preserve what those so-called “cultural fascists” (as ex-director Sir David Wilson once called them) could never have done properly. In the 1980s, Wilson insisted that removal of the Elgin Marbles “is a much greater disaster than the threat of blowing up the Parthenon.” Yes, those volatile Greeks.

Again, that exchange in 1997 in the House of Lords is pertinent. This, from Lord Wyatt of Weeford: “My Lords, is the Minister aware that it would be dangerous to return the marbles to Athens because they were under attack by Turkish and Greek fire in the Parthenon when they were rescued and the volatile Greeks might easily start hurling bombs around again?”

The main argument made by the Greeks is plausible, and not in itself overly demanding. The unity of the Parthenon is what is at issue here, and given the facilities now in place, their case is stronger than ever. There is no wholesale demand of a return of all that Lord Elgin’s minions whisked away, and it is unlikely that the booty of the world’s museums will be returned as a response.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email:

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