Skip to comments.Campaigners See Hope for Elgin Marbles' Return
Posted on 08/19/2002 10:54:35 AM PDT by Tancred
Campaigners See Hope for Elgin Marbles' Return Sun Aug 18,12:06 PM ET
By Jason Hopps
LONDON (Reuters) - Millions of visitors flock to a cavernous room in the British Museum every year to gaze upon rows of carved gods with flowing robes, headless heroes engaged in battle and wild horses without legs.
Britain is loathe to give up these classical treasures -- known as the Elgin Marbles -- but campaigners fighting for their return to Greece hope a 200-year ownership dispute is finally nearing an end.
"On all sides there is at last a cracking of the ice," said Anthony Snodgrass, a retired archeologist professor who for 20 years has spearheaded a campaign to see the marbles returned to their original home, the Parthenon temple in Athens.
"There is no longer an outright demand for their return from Greece and we are no longer hearing outright refusals from British authorities...things have moved rapidly forward in recent months," he said.
At the center of the diplomatic tug-of-war are 2,500-year-old marble carvings of gods, men and monsters that originally adorned the Parthenon, one of classical Greece's physical and spiritual epicenters.
A Venetian naval bombardment destroyed much of the Parthenon in 1687. But in 1801, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was given permission by the ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire to cart away many of the surviving sculptures to London.
The marbles -- called the Parthenon Marbles in Greece -- were stored in Elgin's house until he sold them to the British government in 1816. Since then, they have attracted millions of visitors as a centerpiece in the British Museum.
Campaigners fighting for their repatriation say several factors offer fresh hope that a deal might soon be cut to settle the dispute.
Athens will be at the center of the world stage when it hosts the 2004 Summer Olympic Games ( news - web sites) and the city is building a museum at the foot of the Acropolis, where it expects one day to display the marbles with pride.
"The Olympics could become a catalyst for the marbles' return and if the Acropolis museum is ready by 2004, millions of visitors will see an empty void save for a few placards saying "Parthenon Marbles Go Here," said Snodgrass.
If that publicity isn't enough to pressure Britain to return the treasures -- or to at least lend them back -- several countries, including China, Australia and Russia, have recently chimed in, saying the marbles should be sent back.
In the biggest breakthrough in the long-running dispute, Snodgrass said he will hold a tete-a-tete on the marbles with the British Museum's new director later this summer.
"That they are willing to talk gives me renewed hope," he said. "It is a breakthrough just to have a meeting with the British Museum and though we are not expecting any sudden agreement, there is certainly change within the museum that is making discussions seem more fluid."
RETURN "NOT A FEASIBLE OPTION"
Despite Snodgrass's nascent hopes, Britain is sticking to its official line that the marbles -- 56 blocks of frieze and 19 statues -- were removed legally and are going nowhere.
"The government has considered the issue over a number of years and decided that the return of the sculptures to Greece is not a feasible or sensible option," said a spokesman for Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The British Museum, which will celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2003 and is loathe to lose one of its most prestigious collections, is equally implacable:
"The British Museum's sculptures are where they will remain, in the museum's own purpose-built gallery, where they are displayed free for all," the museum said in a statement.
"If symbolic gestures for 2004 are called for, there could be none better than Greece making sure that it properly displays what it already has."
Greek diplomats have put a gentle pressure on Britain for decades. In recent years, they have even scaled-back demands for an outright return of the marbles in the hope of a compromise.
Keen to point out there need be no winners or losers, Greece has given up claims of ownership in its desire to display the marbles in the Acropolis museum.
"Who owns the sculptures is unimportant, irrelevant and immaterial. What matters is where they should be," the Greek embassy in London said in a statement.
"We request the return of only those sculptures removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and that we make no general claim for the restitution of other artifacts simply want to restore the unity of a unique monument."
GLIMMERS OF HOPE
For now, at least, Greece will have to settle for fresh glimmers of hope instead of a long sought-after reunion.
Snodgrass conceded that the British Museum had been a good caretaker of the marbles.
"On the whole the British Museum has looked after the marbles well and safeguarded and protected them from environmental damage...They have probably come off better than if they had remained in Greece," he said.
"But the old arguments for keeping them in Britain no longer apply and attitudes at the British Museum are slowly changing as well."
Old arguments ran that Athens' high pollution would damage the sensitive marble; that Greece was incapable of properly caring for the treasures and that it possessed no means of displaying them safely.
In recent years, most of those arguments have crumbled and it is now down to new thinking on both sides to settle the dispute.
On a busy morning in the bustling British Museum, a tourist from California sketching a sculpture of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, remarked:
"Britain gave back Hong Kong and they might even give back Gibraltar to Spain, so why can't they just lend Greece the marbles, if only for a little while?"
Look at the detail on the one caryatid that Lord Elgin carried back to England: Now, look at her sisters who have remained on the famous porch of the Erechtheion, especially the one on the corner (the lady in the back is a concrete replacement for the one Lord Elgin took). Their faces have been almost obliterated by the corrosive air.
This guy needs a refresher in capitalism. If Britain owns the marbles (and they do), Britain should have total control over where the marbles ought to be.
This case really opens up a whole can of worms, a little like reparations. The ruler of Greece, in 1801, gave the marbles to an Englishman. That's legal transfer of ownership. A great deal of art in the world's museums is there by donation. If it is decided that the heirs of the donor can say "Changed my mind -- give the art back, please" then the contents of the world's museums will quickly revert back into private hands. And then be sold to museums or (more likely) rich private collectors.