Parthenon marbles’ return would be a lovely jubilee gesture | Letters

The sculptures in the British Museum could be replaced by exact replicas, and it would be fitting to return them to Greece this year, says Roger Michel. Plus letters from Anna Watson, Alan Gavurin and Richard Pickvance

The Parthenon marbles have been a source of tension between Greece and England for 200 years (The Parthenon marbles belong in Greece – so why is restitution so hard to swallow?, 5 February). Lord Byron urged their return in the 1820s. Last year, Unesco did the same. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Britons favour repatriation. Unfortunately, the debate has become a zero-sum game, with the suggestion that there can be but a single winner.

Last month, at an event at Keats House in London, I tried to change that calculus: speaking alongside the Greek ambassador, I offered to reconstruct the marbles held by the British Museum. The copies, carved from the same stone, would be virtually identical to the originals.

The museum justifies its retention of the marbles on the ground that this allows visitors to see Phidias’s masterpiece in the context of global culture. High-quality reconstructions would serve that purpose just as well. Reconstructions would also acknowledge Britons’ special attachment to the marbles. As the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum have proved, people can fall in love with copies. The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s reconstructed Arch of Palmyra, unveiled on Trafalgar Square in 2016 before travelling to other cities around the world, has attracted more than 15 million visitors. Many have found the reconstruction more compelling than the original, embodying as it does a powerful gesture of international goodwill.

The histories of Greece and Britain are deeply intertwined, and it is a pity that a prominent exhibit in our national museum has become a perpetual symbol of discord between the two countries.

In the mid-19th century, Britain returned the Ionian islands to Greece to celebrate the coronation of the late Duke of Edinburgh’s grandfather as King of Greece. Perhaps the Queen’s diamond jubilee provides a fitting occasion to restore a treasured relic of antiquity to her late husband’s homeland.
Roger Michel
Institute for Digital Archaeology

• Charlotte Higgins explains the three legal criteria by which items can be deaccessioned from the British Museum’s collection under the 1963 British Museum Act and its amendments. It is now time for another amendment, which could be set it motion by a pro-repatriation MP. Adding a fourth criterion, for the deaccession of items for repatriation, would allow for ethical decisions to be made independently by trustees. The British Museum’s vaults are huge, and other items can be brought into the daylight without diminishing the value of the museum to visitors.
Anna Watson

• One of the many reasons why Britain has refused to return the marbles to Greece is Neil MacGregor’s suggestion that the British Museum is a “universal” museum based on Enlightenment principles, “a place of the world, for the world”, as Charlotte Higgins states. This reasoning looks particularly specious given the catastrophic fall in the number of school trips to the UK from Europe and other countries post-Brexit.
Alan Gavurin

• Please can we have a moratorium on discussion about the return of the Parthenon marbles until the French return the Bayeux tapestry, (which was made in England, according to the experts)?
Richard Pickvance


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trust us to look after Parthenon marbles | Letters
Letters: Brexit should have no bearing on where the Parthenon marbles are kept, says the British Museum’s Richard Lambert. Jeremy Chaundry reckons they should stay in the UK, while Chris Hardy has a suggestion for replacing them.


26, Sep, 2018 @4:45 PM

Article image
Restore the Parthenon marbles to their full beauty in Athens | Letters
Letters: Janet Suzman wants the marbles joined to their other half in Athens, Benedict Birnberg also argues for their return from London, and Pete Eiseman-Renyard reflects on their care


30, Sep, 2018 @5:43 PM

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


31, Jan, 2019 @6:29 PM

Article image
The Parthenon marbles belong in Greece – so why is restitution so hard to swallow? | Charlotte Higgins
Repatriating the spoils of empire is stuck in all manner of legal and historical impasses, says Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief culture writer

Charlotte Higgins

05, Feb, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Return of Parthenon marbles is up to British Museum, says No 10
Spokesperson’s comments before Boris Johnson met Greek PM appear to signal softening of position

Peter Walker and Helena Smith in Athens

16, Nov, 2021 @2:32 PM

Article image
British Museum chief: taking the Parthenon marbles was 'creative'
Museum director sparks anger by saying removing sculptures from Greece was ‘a creative act’

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

28, Jan, 2019 @7:45 PM

Article image
Greek prime minister tries to broker deal for return of Parthenon marbles
Kyriakos Mitsotakis offers to loan Greek treasures to British Museum if ‘stolen’ sculptures are returned to Acropolis

Tom Ambrose and Helena Smith in Athens

13, Nov, 2021 @3:32 PM

Article image
Italy returns Parthenon fragment to Greece amid UK row over marbles
Loan deal could renew pressure on Britain to repatriate ancient Parthenon marbles to Athens

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

05, Jan, 2022 @3:23 PM

Article image
George Clooney backs return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece
Actor says it would be "very nice" if the British Museum reptriates ancient frieze removed by Lord Elgin in 19th century

Maev Kennedy

09, Feb, 2014 @8:16 PM

Article image
Elgin's casts of Parthenon marbles reveal details since lost from statues
Findings could shine fresh light on some of the most celebrated monuments in classical art

Esther Addley

10, Dec, 2019 @1:15 PM