Arguments for keeping the Elgin Marbles in the BM usually boil down to:
A) If Elgin hadn’t appropriated them they would probably have rotted or crumbled away so we saved them and deserve to keep them
B) Once you go down the path of museums returning ransacked treasures to their countries of origin then all the great museums and galleries of the world will have their collections dispersed to the great detriment of scholarship, visitor access and common sense
C) Every year, more people see them in the British Museum than visit Athens, so to move them would be to reduce their availability to be seen.
Argument A is most peculiar. As Hitchens put it, if you rescue furniture from a neighbour’s fire and keep it for them while they rebuild their house you then give it back, you don’t claim rights over it. Hitchens points out in his book how gracious Greece has been about the whole affair. It was Melina Mercouri (at whose funeral he was a pall-bearer), the actress, singer and politician, who really got the campaign going and always conducted it, on her part, with great good grace.
The British Museum has been utterly intransigent over point B. “Over my dead body” appears to be the view of each successive Director. The current chief, Neil MacGregor has had a brilliant tenure but is quite as foursquare against the return of the marbles as his predecessors. It is axiomatic that no museum or gallery ever likes to de-acquire. “What next?” they cry. “Every mummy, every Babylonian pot, the Rosetta Stone? The Royal Game of Ur? The Madonna of the Rocks and Rembrandt’s self-portraits at the National? Cleopatra’s Needle?”
Well, the answer to that is NO. We are discussing a specific part of an existing building, which we now know can be properly and professionally curated and displayed. The argument “Oh, once you go down that path…” has never held water. The weirder kind of libertarians said it about seat belts. “Oh, once you make people wear seat belts it’ll be helmets and roll bars next…” that kind of drivel. “Once you ban hunting, they’ll ban fishing.” If you ban citizens from owning Uzi machine guns it doesn’t mean you’re “going down the path that will lead to the banning of shot-guns and peashooters. Get a grip everyone.
Humans have will. We can go down a path and then turn left or right, or turn right round. Legislature is, perforce, nuanced and (we trust) skilfully drafted precisely so as to introduce regulation with the minimum loss of wider rights and liberties. “Going down the path” of the return of the Elgin Marbles need not be fatefully precedential. We could decide to let it not be. Of course plenty of countries will seize their chance to have a go at demanding returns of this artefact or that, but this is happening anyway. The Parthenon affair is a special case. Italy returned their fragment two years ago and haven’t been badgered, bullied and ballyragged since.
Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for its return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more. And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right.
As for Point C, visitor numbers, well that is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, not to mention a counsel of despair. As Kevin Costner almost said, ‘If you move it, they will come.”
Not everyone likes the new Acropolis museum it must be admitted: apparently its construction flattened the musician Vangelis’s charming house and the reinstalled friezes would, say some scholars, be hardly more ‘authentic’ in their new home than they are in Bloomsbury. But the stone quarried from Mount Pentelikon, the dazzling white pentelic marble from which the Parthenon is made, is for Greece what the marble of Carrara was for Michelangelo and it belongs in its homeland, it expresses it. There really is such a characteristic as terroir. Which is why something as disgusting as retsina tastes so delicious on a beach in Patmos and so horrific in a warm kitchen in Wincanton.