Why I think the “Elgin” marbles should stay in London

I am often accused of taking “extreme” positions just for the heck of it.  Well, sorry, this isn’t one of those cases.  I truly believe that Greece is better off if the parts of the Parthenon frieze stay where they are.  Here are my arguments, numbered for reference.  If you have a counter argument, give me the number and some logic, fact or new information.

1. The frieze was never “stolen” from Greece.  It was taken from Turkish lands.   Get a grip on international law please.  They had been Turkish for 400 years and before that a rather insignificant corner of the Roman empire for one and a half thousand years.  The Byzantines had already destroyed thousands of ancient Greek monuments for political reasons and through religious hatred, the Turks had let them fall to ruin through laziness or for profit of the local overlord.  That famous rock in Athens they were taken from had not been “Greek” for thousands of years when Elgin took them; it had been Athenian almost 2000 years earlier.   You have to have a pretty twisted view of history to find a direct legal line of “Greekiness” from the time the Romans conquered to 1800 when the marbles were taken.   In fact you can easily claim that the three empires after ancient Athens were in charge of the area for longer than the ancient Athenians!  (Which kind of “ancient Athenians” would you pick?)

2. Elgin saved the marbles.  Imagine where they would be if he had sold them to Napoleon?  (Napoleon offered more money that then British museum for starters!)  The Turks were in no way kind to antiquities and neither was the bunch of shepherds that lived around Athens in 1800.   We have no way of knowing whether they would have survived the war for Freedom from the Turks in the 1820s or even the German occupation in WWII.  London was one of the few places in the world to remain Nazi free at the same time as the Swastika ruled the Acropolis and many works of art completely disappeared forever from the world via Nazis which we never found somewhere in South America.

3. The new museum under the Acropolis is indeed a wonder and worthy of housing the frieze if it was to be returned.  Does anyone remember how many decades of bickering it took to build?  And the people demanding the return of the Elgin marbles were equally vociferous even before the museum!  In a city which is often completely disfunctional and horrible for tourists, where the center of town is closed for demonstrations, where you can smell the roses less often than tear gas, where the wonderful metro station near the new museum is often closed due to protests or strikes… now we think we can suddenly demand the marbles back?   Let’s just remember that for the past 200 years they have been permanently accessible to the world thanks to Elgin.  If they were returned they would simply go from one museum to another.  There is no scientific or practical way they would be reattached to the famous monument anyway.  (Nobody would be able to see them up there, they wouldn’t really fit and would probably look odd to us nowadays after all these years we have been seeing the Parthenon without them anyway.)

4. What tourists?  Millions of people visit the British museum annually.  1 in 4 tourists to London, that international hub, the place where Americans, Japanese and Chinese go first and foremost when they “do” Europe.   If the Greek government were to choose the absolute best place to advertise Greek tourism, a place to plant the idea “hey, make your next trip to Europe include Greece please” it would probably be the Ground Floor of the British museum!  Or, to put it another way, if the frieze left London, visitor numbers would be unaffected there but people visiting Greece would decrease.  The Parthenon’s status as an important cultural site would be diminished.   The copies in the new museum work fine to tell the story, what would Greece gain if the originals took their place?   It is not as if thousands of people would think “great!  Let’s visit Athens this year to see the marbles where they belong at last!”

5. Leave the “Elgin” marbles as a lost cause.  It is good promotion for all involved.   It wouldn’t even be a big deal without the fuss.  Hey, let’s start a “get Venus of Milos back from the Louvre” motion while we are at it too!  Get some of the French tourists thinking more about coming to Greece next time, why not?

6. Most of all I am ashamed of the way my compatriots whine and complain about this issue.  How they consider it their God given (which God?  Is that Zeus or the other one?) right to selectively claim anything “Greek” as and when they wish.   How they put Greece in a political corner of “spoilt brats” who act like there is no such thing as international law.  They make up excuses, imagine “facts” and twist everything at will and whim.  At a time when internationally museums are more proactively seeking exchanges and new ways to become financially viable and pertinent to society, Greek museums are as dead, inactive and bureaucratic as ever.  Greek Universities more useless than ever, especially in things related to antiquity, at the same time as British museums remain a hub of activity, innovation and collaboration.   Denying all this takes audacity and selective perception at a scale which clearly emphasizes the immaturity of this country and its citizens.  We are digging ourselves into a hole much like on the “Macedonia” issue, simply proving that in the few years since we became a unified “Greek” country for the first time (two centuries ago, just after Elgin left really) we have little understanding of what it takes to make a functional country-state.

Well we are not all like that.  So comment away about how I am not patriotic enough, how I am working against our “national interests” or whatever else you want.  But if you can’t find a decent counter argument, you have just proven my case.  Greece needs to work much much harder for much longer to prove itself internationally.  Just like two years of austerity doesn’t suddenly make us a paradigm of economic health, a few years of a fancy new museum doesn’t prove we deserve the world to suddenly give us whatever pieces of ancient art we selectively take fancy to.

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