Saturday, November 27

Returning the marbles from the Parthenon to Greece: technological advances mean there are no more excuses | Simon Jenkins

One day, a British government will return the Parthenon marbles to Athens. The only question is: who will get the eternal credit and thanks from Greece?

The obvious candidate was surely Boris Johnson. In 1986, the scholar of classics invited the Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri speak at Oxford University, vowing to help her restore the glory of the Parthenon. However, this week became another one of Johnson’s Don Giovanni promises, words that only meant at the time. Visiting London earlier this week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, challenged him to “think outside the box in terms of global Britannia” and deliver a “fantastic blow to public diplomacy.” Johnson pretended that the matter was up to the British Museum and nothing to do with it.

Anyone who has seen the other half of the Parthenon frieze, now on display in the magnificent Acropolis Museum in Athens, will agree that this greatest of Europe’s treasures should not be cut up and divided between Athens and London. It belongs to the place where it was created, radiant in Greek light and placed within sight of its original temple. Half shouldn’t be sitting frozen and out of context in a gloomy Bloomsbury mausoleum.

The saga of the Parthenon marbles has lately been embroiled in a broader debate about cultural identity and restitution. The British Museum has long argued, for a time powerfully, that its accumulation of global artifacts over two centuries of British Empire has enchanted and educated London tourists. The marbles were not looted but were cut from the acropolis between 1801 and 1805 by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, with permission from the then conquerors of Greece, the Turks. Nobody asked the Greeks, but otherwise it was legal.

The British Museum now protests that what it has it keeps carefully. Yes, you came close to ruining the marbles when you cleaned them with wire brushes in 1938, but at least they were safe from war and contamination. Anyone can come to London to see them, instead of traveling to a distant Balkan capital, says the museum; We do not want to open the floodgates to all the foolish regimes that seek to boost their cultural image by storming the basements of London in search of ancient things. Museum curators love worst-case scenarios.

However, the world advances. Cultures yearn for their countries of origin, their environments, their identities. Museums in Africa and Asia are getting better. They seek to rediscover and interpret their ancient narratives. Surely we should respect rather than prevent this wish. There may be no rules governing the return of museum objects, but people-to-people dealings require qualities of courtesy, generosity, and common sense.

To be fair, Western museums are responding. Paris is return looted artifacts Southeast Asia and Senegal. Benin bronzes have been returned to Nigeria from Cambridge, Aberdeen, Germany, and France. The British Museum returned the royal jewels to Ceylon in the 1930s and regalia to Burma in 1964. He even returned part of the Sphinx’s beard to Egypt. To circumvent the rules prohibiting “debunking”, these moves are often phrased as “permanent loans.”

In 1941, during World War II, the British Foreign Office actively considered the return of the Parthenon marbles as a gesture of support for Greek nationalism, when the war should end. On occasion, the British Museum has proposed to loan them to Athens for an exhibition, but does not trust the Greeks to return them. Nor is he moved by Greek offers of sumptuous loaned items, such as the Golden Mask of Agamemnon.

This debate has been further transformed by developments in replication. Computerized 3D printing and engraving, pioneered in Italy and at the Oxford Institute of Digital Archeology, can now recreate ancient buildings and statues with microscopic precision, even using the original stone. There are plans to “reprint” the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015, and replicate monuments tragically lost in Mosul and Nimrud.

The Parthenon marbles could now be reproduced as indistinguishable from the originals, even if snooty art critics may dismiss them as fake and “not the same.” This raises the question of which museum, London or Athens, should receive the “originals”, and does it really matter? We can admire the second cast of a Rodin statue or the fourth state of a Rembrandt engraving as much as the first. Who cares?

There is only one answer to this: that the Greeks do care. The lost Parthenon frieze in its original condition is a reminder of the humiliation of the country by the Turks and a British aristocrat. They feel that these stones are theirs, just as the Stone of Scone belongs to Scotland, and Stonehenge would “belong” to all British people if Emperor Claudius had decided to take it back to Rome. If Londoners want to experience the aesthetic appeal of Greek carving, they can – technology can replicate it for them, as it is now replicating famous statues across Europe. But let the stones return.

This matter, so important to the Greeks but not to the British, could be resolved with good will in an instant. Precisely such negotiation on marbles was demanded in September by UNESCO, and rejected by Great Britain. If you require a “perpetual loan” or an act of parliament, then go ahead. If money is required, raise. Johnson is being weak in mocking Athens’s request for not being under his purview. The museum is a state institution. Instead of keeping his promise and doing the right thing for the marbles, he’s made another U-turn and it worked.

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