There can’t be a better spot in the whole of London than the British Museum, the crown jewel of the city’s cultural life and a fantastic tribute to the British fascination with exploring the world around us. I recommend anyone visiting this country to take a look – and it’s free, so one of the few places in London where you won’t get fleeced.
But, and as much as I love being able to see them, the Museum’s Elgin Marbles belong to Greece, and the subject will never go away.
It has come up again because the British Museum is loaning one of the relics, a headless statue of the river god Ilissos, to St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. This is very good news, considering Anglo-Russian relations are at their lowest point in a quarter of a century; where antiquities cross borders, armies won’t, perhaps.
But the Greeks might not understand why those Hellenised Vikings to the north of them get to have the marbles, but not they, whose ancestors created them.
The British arguments are well-rehearsed and perfectly sound; Lord Elgin bought them legally, at great personal expense, and he certainly saved them. In the 19th century, when German, French and British explorers and archaeologists first began rummaging around the Ottoman Empire to look at the ruins of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek civilisation, the concept of preserving antiquities was unknown. Some of the ancient finds from spots such as Nineveh were still being damaged in a casual way by locals who had little understanding of how important they were.
It’s also true that Greece itself does not have a great record of preserving antiquities, at least until relatively recently, and that they have been better preserved in London than in Athens.
And yet none of this changes the fact that they were taken at a time when Greece was occupied by another country, and it was done without the consent of the Greek people. If parts of Westminster Abbey had been shipped off at a time when England was occupied by another country, how many of us would accept that?
One argument against returning them is that it might set a precedent, and that in much of the world antiquities are not cared for, or political instability may be a threat (museums in Iraq and Egypt have in recent years suffered from fires and looting). But the Museum could set standards of care as a condition for any return, and also demand that the country in question has had 50, 60 or 75 years of stable and free government; I think I can safely predict that their Assyrian and Egyptian collection will be safe in London for a long time.
The British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor argues that it is a ‘museum of the world, for the world’. That is true, up to a point, I suppose – but the marbles belong to Greece, and it’s up to the Greek people to decide whether the world gets them.