Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?
Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?

What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are ancient Greek sculptures dating from the fifth century BCE. They were originally in the Parthenon in Athens.

Where are they?

In the British Museum in London.

How did they get to Britain?

In 1812 the Earl of Elgin, a British aristocrat, removed them from the Parthenon. He claimed that he did so with the agreement of the Ottoman government; this claim has been widely disputed. At the time, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, which was centred on what is now Turkey. Greece did not become an independent country until 1830. Elgin brought the marbles back to Britain. In 1816, he sold them to the British government, who put them in the British Museum.

Who wants them back?

In 1983, the Greek government formally requested the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

Why do they want them back?

Because (they claim) they were stolen.

Because half the collection remains in Athens, and splitting it makes the collection incomplete.

Because they can best be understood in the place they come from.

Are they going to get them back?

In November 2023, the marbles caused a major diplomatic incident. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was on an official visit to the UK. During a TV interview, he reiterated his government's position that the marbles should be returned to Greece, likening their being kept in Britain to 'cutting the Mona Lisa in half.' The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, promptly cancelled his meeting with Mr Mitsotakis.

The position of the British Museum is rather more nuanced. At the time of writing, they are discussing the possibility of loaning the marbles to Athens on a long term basis.

The case of the Elgin Marbles is a good way into considering the wider question of whether artefacts in museums should be returned to their country of origin. (An 'artefact' is an object made by humans which has particular cultural or historical interest.)

For returning artefacts

Many artefacts in British and other western museums were stolen, with the theft often being accompanied either by the threat of violence or actual violence. Even when they were 'legitimately' acquired, negotiations were conducted on a far from equal basis because of the vastly greater economic and military power of the colonialists. Keeping property that has been stolen, or acquired in an unjust way, is simply wrong.

The British Museum, and other museums like it, are not just neutral collections of artefacts; they are political statements. Assembling artefacts from former colonies all round the world in one building, in the city that was once the capital of the British Empire, reproduces the structures of colonialism. It says to the people of former colonies, 'Your stuff is ours. We are going to keep it because we are more important than you, and we can look after it better than you because we are at a higher level of development.' It is an inherently racist institution.

It makes no sense to look at ancient Greek sculptures in London; they don't belong there, as they are from a completely different culture. Imagine if Stonehenge was dismantled and reassembled in the middle of Singapore, or if Westminster Abbey was moved to the Saudi Arabian desert. Either structure would look completely out of place. What is more, it would be impossible to understand them. Stonehenge was built to capture the rising sun on the longest day of the English summer; Singapore is on the equator. Westminster Abbey is a building for Christian worship, and the site of the coronation of British monarchs over centuries; Saudi Arabia is an Arab, Muslim country. Historical artefacts need to be understood in the context in which they were created and in which they lived.

Against returning artefacts

Artefacts may have been originally stolen, but the people who stole them are long dead, as are the people they were stolen from. It is unfair both to punish living people for the crimes of the dead, and to return property to people who have never owned it. If, when researching the history of your house, you discover that the last owner but five got hold of the house by cheating the last owner but six out of it, you are under no obligation to track down the descendants of the last owner but six and hand over the title deeds to them. They have no right to the house because they never owned it. You, on the other hand, have paid for it, live in it, and look after it.

The point of museums is to allow the maximum number of people to see and learn from historic artefacts. Artefacts should therefore be in the best run and best situated museums. The British Museum, and other museums like it, have hundreds of years of experience of looking after valuable historic artefacts. Six million people come to the British Museum every year; only 1.5 million people visit the Parthenon every year.

Another function of museums is to bring together objects from different cultures and times, so they can be understood in their wider context. Museums help people to understand other cultures, and to see the universal value of every culture. It is a wonderful thing that the whole world is under one roof in the British Museum; it unites people and cultures. As the former Director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, put it, 'Where else can the world see so clearly that it is one?' The logical extension of returning all artefacts to their original countries would be that you could only see British artefacts in Britain, Greek artefacts in Greece, Nigerian artefacts in Nigeria, and so on. The world would become more divided, and everyone would live in their own cultural ghettoes, with no mutual understanding.

Times change, countries change. Britain is no longer an imperial power. Greece is not the same country as the one the Elgin Marbles were taken from. Assuming that countries and cultures have a fixed, unchanging identity borders on racism. You wouldn't say to a man who was born in Greece but came to London forty years ago, got a job, learned English, married an Englishwoman, brought up children in London and became a British citizen, 'You're not really British; go back to Greece!' In the same way, the Elgin Marbles, and many artefacts like them, have been in Britain for so long that they are fully integrated into British culture.