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Should the Elgin Marbles Stay at the British Museum?

07/12/2014 23:07 | Updated 06 February 2015

The subject of repatriation of the Elgin Marbles has made a return to the front pages with news that one of the sculptures has been lent to Russia. From Saturday the headless torso of the River God Illissos will be on show at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg until mid January.

This is the first time in 200 years that one of the great Parthenon sculptures has been lent abroad from the UK. It forms part of an exhibition to celebrate the Russian museum's 250th anniversary and has been lent by the British Museum trustees despite a backdrop of frosty relations between the two countries. Director Neil MacGregor has vigorously defended the decision, remarking in a blog post, that he believed that loans between museums must continue in spite of political differences between Governments.

The sculptures in question were recently the subject of debate when Amal Clooney was hired by the Greek Government to fight for their return to Athens. However, their demand to return the marbles from London's British Museum to the Parthenon is fundamentally flawed, from a legal standpoint as well as from a cultural point of view.

The history of the marbles stretches back 2,500 years, from their creation in Athens, where they adorned the Parthenon, to their modern day home in the British Museum, where they are on permanent public display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery. At the turn of the 19th Century Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, conceived of a plan to remove the marbles from the crumbling Parthenon and transport them back to the UK, with the intention that they be put on display for the general public.

When it comes to the question of legality in the objects' removal (which is the aspect of the dispute that Amal Clooney has been called in to advise on), it is vital to underscore the fact that the marbles were legally purchased from the Ottoman Empire. Lord Elgin obtained a ferman (a royal mandate) from the Ottoman emperor, which gave Elgin full license to remove the sculptures from the Acropolis, which was conducted at Elgin's own personal expense and under his supervision. The idea that the Greek government has any legal claim over the marbles is completely spurious - they were a legitimate sale by the then-presiding regime, and there is no domestic or international law that renders transactions by previous governments invalid.

But that is just the legal side of the argument - once the cultural aspects of the dispute are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the actions of Lord Elgin arguably did more to preserve the integrity of the Parthenon marbles than any regime that had presided over them since the time of their creation. The marbles suffered a great deal of damage in their couple of thousand years before Elgin's arrival, from the Parthenon's various conversions into a Christian church and then an Ottoman mosque, to its use as a gunpowder store during the Venetian siege of 1687. The Ottomans' decision to store their explosives inside the most visible landmark in Athens proved to be a foolish one - a mortar round fired by the attacking army ignited the magazine and blew the entire roof off the temple, destroying many of the sculptures along with it.

In the following centuries, Athens was the site of many other such battles and attacks, from the Greek war of independence to the Axis Occupation during World War II, and the Parthenon continued to suffer damage during these conflicts. Were it not for Lord Elgin's removal of the sculptures, they would have remained at the mercy of looters and military commanders. Would they even have survived beyond the 19th Century?

The fact that the Greek Culture Minister has ramped up the rhetoric on the issue comes as no surprise - the argument is a crowd-pleaser, invoking ideas of national pride and reminding people of the country's glorious ancient past. This is a policy that very few Greek voters would take issue with, and is designed to boost Government support when voter apathy and distrust of politicians is at an all time high.

The demand for the return of the marbles suggests the righting of an historic wrong, with the implication that Britain is still an Imperial power plundering the world of its cultural gems. The issue presents a convenient distraction from the Eurozone crisis, focussing attention away from the Greek Government's economic challenges, towards the country's cultural importance, now with an added dose of Hollywood glamour.

It is wrong to suggest that museums and galleries do not take the claims of looting and stolen art seriously - some of the most important museums in the world now have programmes dedicated to the return of stolen artworks to their rightful owners. MoMA's Provenance Research Project was set up to research the ownership of its 800 paintings acquired after 1932 that could have been in Continental Europe during the Nazi era, in order to ascertain whether they were the subjects of Nazi looting. In 2006, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum famously returned over 200 old-master paintings to the family of Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish collector who fled Amsterdam in 1940.

However, in the case of the Elgin marbles, allegations of looting or thievery are simply unfounded - the transaction was legal and conducted in the interest of preserving the artworks from further damage. The British Government purchased the marbles from Lord Elgin (at a fraction of the price it actually cost him to retrieve them), and the British Museum have exhibited the works to the public free of charge ever since, in one of the world's most important tourist locations.

The situation of the Parthenon marbles in London means that millions of visitors can appreciate their beauty on view for free in an enclyopedic museum which showcases world history and culture. This is what Elgin had in mind all along when he salvaged the sculptures over 200 years ago.