Some of British Museum’s changing arguments for keeping the Parthenon Marbles

Christopher Hitchens’ passing reminded me of his rich contribution to the call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. In his book The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification he thoroughly lays out the case for the return of the Marbles, a fact often drawn to my attention by my good friend Emanuel J Comino AM, who established the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles.

Back and shoulders of Poseidon's torso in the British Museum
Pectorals and abdomen from Poseidon's torso in New Acropolis Museum

After the opening of the New Acropolis Museum Hitchens was adamant that the British Museum (BM) could no longer sustain their long standing objection to reunification, based on the old argument that there was nowhere in Athens to house the Parthenon Marbles. Of course the BM has developed a litany of arguments over the years.

The BM’s Board of Trustees now insist that:

It is often incorrectly reported that the British Museum argues that the sculptures in their collection should remain in London because there is nowhere to house them in Greece and that the Greek authorities cannot look after them. Now that the new museum is opening these arguments are redundant.

Neither of these claims is true, the British Museum does not argue this.

Stephen Fry has also been moved to take up the cause and, in his latest blog post, has published an excellent essay on the matter of reunification titled A Modest Proposal, in which he addresses some of the other arguments.

I’ve been meaning to write something further on this issue for a while now.  Christopher Hitchens’ passing, Stephen Fry’s article, and the fact that the school holidays have begun and I’ve time to think about more than teaching has motivated me to begin.

Arguments for all seasons

The BM has a well developed habit of presenting arguments for all seasons.  These are easy enough to find on the Museum’s website.  In recent years the Museum has been asserting that it should retain the Parthenon Marbles because in London they are best placed to show their contribution the world’s historical development, or at least that of the Western world. One expression of this argument, apparently no longer on the BM website, read:

They are displayed in purpose-built galleries seen every year by some six million visitors, free of charge. The Museum is committed to display and interpret its collections, communicating to a world audience and providing an international context where cultures can be experienced by all, and contrasted across time and place.

The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum

As Stephen Fry points out, such arguments are somewhat self serving, but they are also only partial truths. While the British Museum might retain a free entry policy, the Marbles are widely merchandised, so too is the controversy surrounding them.  When I last looked at the BM’s website they had a copy of the horse’s head from Selene’s Chariot on sale for £1650, a copy of a Parthenon frieze fragment for £225 and then there are the books and finally the audio tours, all part of the merchandising of the Parthenon Marbles.

The price of the reproduction of Selene's horse has increased since I took this shot in 2009

Returning to the BM’s website while writing this post I found yet another iteration of the arguments. The site now claims that:

The British Museum exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures.

Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Parthenon sculptures are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced- and was influenced by- the other civilisations that it encountered.

There was a time when the Museum offered the argument that its ‘acquisition’ of the Marbles was a product  of the 18th-century ‘Enlightenment’, whereby culture was seen to transcend national boundaries.

It’s easy to understand just how the museum board’s logic might work. The Marbles are a jewel in the British Museum’s collection, an acknowledgement historic importance of Hellenic culture, in particular the Parthenon, something so important that the Museum’s building reflects many of its architectural features.

The facade of the British Museum, Russell Square, London

An imperial taxonomy

The Marbles themselves form of part of an extensive collection of artefacts acquired in an era when Britannia’s sons embarked on European fact finding tours that were to richly transform the architecture of the imperial city, its provincial satellites and numerous urban centres in the colonies and dominions. Of course it wasn’t only Hellenic architectural forms that contributed to this transformation, even though they were seminal. Such early cultural tourism introduced ideas several other major European cultural centres.  So Britain’s imperial reach disseminated British interpretations of a range of European architectural forms to the furthest margins of the Empire.

Collections such as those of the British Museum are not merely an accumulation of European artefacts they are also the product of an assiduous gathering of materials from Empire. They are an extension of the process begun by Britannia’s sons in Europe, a selection of ideas and objects that appealed at the time. By it’s very nature the BM’s collection is suffused with an antiquated imperial logic. When the British Museum and the BBC offer us A History of the World in 100 Objects, they are offering us a collection of artefacts refracted through the lens of an imperial taxonomy. Sadly for the BM, there are huge numbers of people in the world that just don’t see things quite that way, observing the world and its history through lenses with an entirely different refractive index.

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