As a Greek, I have to visit the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum whenever I am in London.
I understand the strong feelings of my compatriots who want to see these unsurpassed sculptures returned home, ending the wrong done by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, two centuries ago. I feel the sense of dislocation — the incongruity — of the brilliance of Classical Athens at its peak trapped in a dull northern light, carried off by a foreign aristocrat and sold at a time when Greece itself was enslaved and its people unable to prevent the looting of their treasures.
And yet, without going into the legal or moral aspects of the issue, without weighing whether the Parthenon Marbles were saved or damaged by their removal, I cannot help feeling that the looting may have done the sculptures themselves and the idea of Ancient Greece more good than harm.
The British Museum is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement. It has given pride of place to the sculptures from the pediments, metopes and frieze of the Parthenon, providing them with the grandest gallery in the majestic building, when the wonders of other civilizations are cramped in smaller halls and corridors.
I agree with the British Museum that its exhibits tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world and that the display of the Parthenon Marbles allows millions of visitors each year to admire them and “gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilizations that it encountered.” Visitors, who are not charged an entry fee, can contemplate treasures from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, from Egypt and from Greece from earliest times down to the Hellenistic era.
And among the whole world’s treasures, the Parthenon Marbles shine — the expression of a free people celebrating their freedom from foreign invaders, their freedom from kings, aristocrats and religious bureaucracies. Because this, more than the wonder of their art, is the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures — whether in the British Museum, in Athens or wherever lesser segments are displayed.
In their depiction of the goddess Athena bursting out of Zeus’s forehead and her triumphing over Poseidon to become the city’s protector, in the mythical battles between centaurs and men, in the lively procession of contemporary citizens of democratic Athens honoring their goddess, the sculptures sing of freedom, community and the glory of life.
They are like a sunburst in a long and sometimes regressive chain of civilizations that created great art but whose people lived in the shadow of kings and priests and superstition. The Parthenon sculptures enshrine the point where the human melds with the divine, where, through the genius of mind and hand, stone is smoothed into the rippling of flesh, spirit and motion.
From the time they were brought to London, as the British Museum points out, the Parthenon Marbles inspired poets and artists and had a profound effect on scholars and the public.
Before the era of mass tourism, there can be no doubt that the sculptures drew broader attention to the achievements of the ancient Greeks and their descendants’ struggle to break free from the Ottoman Turks and establish their modern state.
Like silent envoys whose mere presence was their message — their appeal — the works that Pericles commissioned and Phidias created once again expressed the will of a people to be free. In an echo of this, the spirited campaign for the Marbles’ return to Athens renews their importance — to the benefit of both the British Museum and Greece’s heritage. The dispute reflects the value of the works, and their value drives the dispute. Their being in London, for now, does them no harm.
I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Those that were once burdened by the name of Elgin have been in exile for just over 200 years — a brief period since their creation 2,500 ago. They have outlasted empires and civilizations and will continue to do so. They will be appreciated as long as there are people who appreciate beauty and freedom. And there are enough such people in Britain to ensure that sooner rather than later the Parthenon Marbles will go home.
Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.
This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.