Reuniting the Parthenon marbles is nothing to do with nationalism | Letters

Alexi Kaye Campbell responds to Jonathan Jones’s article on the British Museum director’s claim that the marbles’ removal from Greece in the 19th century could be seen as ‘a creative act’. Plus letters from Pierre Makhlouf and John AK Huntley

As a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles who recently argued (and happily won) against Jonathan Jones at the UCL debate which he mentions in his recent article (Let’s not lose our marbles over the British Museum boss’s remarks, 29 January), I presumptuously assume I am included in his description of “the passionate proponents of Greece’s claim”. He goes on to say that people such as myself “need to explain how their argument differs from any other variety of nationalist populism”. I thought I had done just that at UCL, but I shall do so again in case he missed my point.

On that evening, I had made the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, and had alluded to how I believe nationalism is what happens when patriotism is thwarted or humiliated. I had said that as a relatively new modern state, albeit with an extraordinary ancient heritage, Greece’s need to forge its contemporary identity after hundreds of years of occupation, cultural evisceration and adversity, often has to look to its glorious ancient history and achievements for confidence and pride. So there is some symbolism in its wish to see the marbles reunited with the monument from which they had been taken when Greece was under Ottoman occupation, there is little doubt of that.

That aspiration, to see such a potent symbol of Greek selfhood made whole again, seems to be an understandable expression of patriotism, especially from a small country which has suffered a tumultuous and often traumatic history. To describe Greece wanting back a piece of art which is an integral part of its most iconic monument as an act of “nationalist populism” is a slightly hysterical allegation, and that it comes from someone who labels any argument for the return of the marbles to Greece as purely emotional and unthinking is rich.

Nationalist populism is an ugly and aggressive movement; asking for something back of huge significance which has been taken from you when you were under foreign occupation is a demand for simple justice. If neither Jonathan Jones, a Brit, nor Hartwig Fischer, a German, can quite understand this notion or sympathise with it, may I suggest it may have something to do with with the fact that both of them come from nations and cultures that have for the most part been the colonisers, and not the colonised.

In that vein, a somewhat anglocentric view of the world is betrayed when Jones laments that Keats was not rich enough to visit Greece and see the marbles, while not seeming all that concerned with the millions of people – poets among them, I’m sure – from Greece, or anywhere else for that matter, who will never be able to afford to “expand their horizons” by travelling to the world museum, which just happens to be in London.

Having said all that, the most insidious aspect of Jonathan Jones’s piece is that it attempts, in true paternalistic style, to create a climate in which those wishing for the return of the marbles are portrayed as being almost exclusively driven by emotion, in contrast to the sensible and pragmatic defenders of the British Museum position.

For many years, I sat on the fence when it came to this topic. As an Anglo-Greek, proud of both my heritages, I could see both sides of the argument. Before the creation of the stunning Acropolis Museum, I agreed with the BM’s position that Greece did not have somewhere adequate to house them. But then I changed my mind. After numerous visits to both the Parthenon and the Duveen Gallery, I came to realise that – not only for sentimental reasons, but for artistic, aesthetic and intellectual ones – the marbles need to be seen with the extraordinary building from which they have been prised.

This, in my mind, and despite my opinions on the history of colonialism and its legacies, is what separates this claim from the many others now being made for the repatriation of works of art in museums across the world. To put it quite simply, the Parthenon, which stands triumphant as a symbol for all humanity under the Attic sky, should be seen whole, entire, complete. An eternal symbol of democracy, more essential than ever before.

To call the act of the marbles being taken from Greece “creative” is just aimless posturing. What would be a truly creative act, and a courageous one, would be for the British Museum to do the right thing.
Alexi Kaye Campbell

• Given the insistence of Hartwig Fischer that the British Museum (BM) is acting in a creative spirit (Elgin marbles’ removal ‘creative’ act, says head of British Museum, 29 January), it would seem sensible for the British Museum to reciprocate in kind. I would propose that the front of the British Museum should be dismantled and sent to Athens in similar creative spirit. But given the nature of the running sore that involves the Elgin marbles, which are such a focus of Greek national pride, it would perhaps also only be fair for the central front section of Buckingham Palace, including its balcony, to be sent to Athens. These acts of creative spirit may contribute to an agreement with the exchange and return of the creative works to their countries of origin in a final act of creative friendship.
Pierre Makhlouf

• Hartwig Fischer may be unfamiliar with the basic definition of theft in English law: “A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.”

Perhaps the next time someone appropriates – or, as Hartwig Fischer would have it, “place[s] in a new context” – a Banksy by removing the door or wall on which it is painted, a defence might be raised that the “removal” was merely a “creative act”. I wonder how that would fare in court?

Theft is theft, as it was in Elgin’s day, and no amount of sophistry by art pundits can change that.
John AK Huntley

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