The Elgin Marbles

The argument about the Elgin Marbles has raged back and forth for a century and a half now. What is beyond question is that the British Museum has been a spectacular home for them, and that the original act of theft by Lord Elgin made sure that they survived in their nearly pristine state. But now? When the Acropolis and its museum can offer preservation and a chance to see those wondrous acts of human creativity in situ? In a well developed secure state with every motivation to display its cultural wellspring to an admiring world?

I used to be on the side of the British Museum but not any more. Not if perfect facsimiles that would be indistinguishable from the originals were put in their place. But these would not be the same, goes the argument. To whom? If an expert standing an inch from it would not be able to tell the difference, what chance would a tourist have thirty feet below? The power and beauty would be indistinguishable from the original. 

But this would be the thin end of the wedge, goes the argument. Anything that wasn’t British would then have to be repatriated. Not if this was billed as a one-off return of objects that belong very specifically in one place and as icons with a particular claim to be at the very heart of what it means to be Greek. I cannot think of any other objects that collectively fulfil that criteria. 

And how about this? Why not offer to return the marbles at the very moment we leave the EU? What a wonderfully generous gesture to say to world, and to our European family, that we may have a disagreement about how we organise ourselves but that we are truly bound together by more than divides us and that we share a common cultural heritage that now belongs safely back in Greece.


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