Recent calls by the Greek authorities for the Elgin Marbles to be returned as a prerequisite to any Brexit deal being struck is opportunistic nonsense and demeans the uniqueness of such important artefacts, says Tim Loughton MP.
Earlier this year I took a few hours out from a visit to UNICEF refugee facilities in Athens to have a look round the Acropolis Museum. I was one of just over 1.4m visitors who did the same last year and I paid five Euros for the privilege. The chunks of marble that form around half of the surviving Parthenon Marbles are on display in the shadow of the iconic Acropolis but not before you have been treated to a propaganda film littered with references to the ‘vandalism’ of Lord Elgin and the British who shipped the other half to London.
In fact the most damage to the spectacular legacy of Pericles was by zealous Christians at the end of the Roman era when the Parthenon was turned into a church, one of many uses over its two and a half millennia history. The cultural iconoclasm of DAESH is in fact nothing new.
Since 1817 they have been housed in the British Museum, free for all to see for free, and protected from urban pollution, political turmoil or the sort of genuine cultural vandalism that has recently seen priceless treasures in places like Nimrud and Palmyra destroyed. Last year the British Museum was visited by over seven million people from around the world, the most visited attraction in the UK, and, in contrast to most European museums, there is no charge.
Recently Greek politicians from the ruling Syriza party have called for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Athens as a component condition of the Brexit negotiations. They have been joined by celebrity lawyers such as Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney. They cite Article 3 of the European Union Treaty which states that each EU member country must ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded.
But this ignores the fact that the Elgin Marbles would probably not have survived had they not been rescued from the Ottomans and are now seen, researched and cared for by around five times as many people in one northern European country than another southern one. Presumably, these same celebrity lawyers would be aghast at the prospect of the UK or the EU using EU citizens as ‘pawns’ in the Brexit negotiating game while residency and employment rights remain unresolved despite Theresa May’s offer to put this at the top of the list. Yet, when it comes to Europe’s cultural heritage, apparently the iconic marbles are fair game, political collateral and something to be traded for a feel-good factor.
This is of course opportunistic nonsense. The Brexit negotiations are not the appropriate forum for resolving bi-lateral bones of contention and frankly it demeans the uniqueness of such important treasures by trying to put them on the Brexit table. Fortunately, the Spanish realised that early on when they had a swift rethink about attempts to reverse the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 and reduce the status of Gibraltar to a Brussels bargaining chip.
The reality is that the EU authorities have responded sensibly to say that cultural heritage is best safeguarded by individual European nations themselves and the EU Treaty should not apply in this case. This does not seem to have stopped Greece’s left wing Government continuing to press its case in the tried and tested routine of drumming up any nationalist cause that might unite the people and deflect their attention from the economic basket case that is currently the EU’s most indebted member.
The cause of handing back the Elgin Marbles to Greece is a regular sideshow in the House of Commons, supported by all manner of rag tag and bobtail usually left wing politicians, with no less than Jeremy Corbyn a regular cheerleader. It side-lines the fact that the decision is vested in the trustees of the British Museum under the 1963 British Museum Act, not the Government, as if the Brexit legislation is not quite complicated enough already.
But more importantly it completely misunderstands the contextualising role of great world museums like the British Museaum, as forces for educational and cultural enlightenment across the globe. Those seven million visitors are able to see the Elgin Marbles not simply as a single artistic treasure but in the context of the great developing panoply of archaic and classical art and architecture of the Greek World, and how that fitted into the whole chronology of world civilisation. All for free, all under one roof and all properly explained, displayed and set in context.
Decontexualistion would be a disaster; the opening of Pandora’s Box as countless priceless items from the world’s international museums are packed off to be see in splendid nationalistic isolation. In the year 2000, while at the British Museum, Nelson Mandela opened the new African Galleries praising ‘this truly international institution for enriching and cross-fertilising the world’s institutions.’ He was right.
Those who really appreciate the value of the Elgin marbles to the world should not now be treating them as political trophies that can be traded for some short term political advantage which somehow makes us all better Europeans. Brexit is quite challenging enough as it is!