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Noel Malcolm, The Elgin Marbles: Keep, Lend or Return?

Noel Malcolm The Elgin Marbles Keep Lend or Return
David Abulafia
Written by David Abulafia

Discussion of the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens has been guided largely by emotion rather than evidence.

Even when evidence has been cited, it has been coloured with a partisan overlay: did the cleaning of the sculptures by the British Museum do more harm than good? What was the legal status of the sale of the sculptures to Lord Elgin by representatives of the Ottoman government? Hanging above those points of detail, important though they are, is the question of whether the Greeks themselves retained a moral right to decide the fate of these sculptures, even when Greece formed part of the Ottoman empire.

Sir Noel Malcolm’s 58-page pamphlet published by Policy Exchange on 20 March is, admittedly, written by someone who opposes their return; but it provides a thorough and extremely scholarly forensic exploration of all the questions concerning Elgin’s actions, the treatment of the sculptures in London, the physical changes that transformed the nineteenth-century Parthenon, and all the issues – small and large – that have been utilised to justify their return. The precision and command of the evidence shown by Sir Noel has all the qualities of a judgment in the High Court. This is a document that the Trustees of the British Museum will have to take into account page by page, and – if they decide to proceed with a ‘loan’ of the Elgin Marbles to Athens – that they will have to rebut page by page, which they will find impossible to do convincingly.

The history of the Parthenon is often imagined as the story of how, at least until a massive explosion in 1687 – the result of Venetian bombardment – the temple precinct hung in pristine purity above the city (at some points a small town of 1,200 houses, but let that pass); and in some versions it becomes the lasting symbol of a continuing classical Greek identity that stretches back in a continuum to the time of Pericles and Plato. But by the end of the Middle Ages the Parthenon was encumbered by the apse of a Byzantine cathedral, while a tower built by the crusader Franks also dominated the Acropolis; a mosque took over from the cathedral, and a minaret was added as well. With time the Erechtheion and the small temple of Athena Nike deteriorated – the latter being to all intents rebuilt by archaeologists. What we see is in large measure an attempt to reconstruct the classical Acropolis by clearing it of other important structures that had accumulated over the centuries.

Within the Parthenon itself, the sculptures were valued not as works of art or as evidence of past Hellenic glory but as material for the lime kiln or building blocks, much of it being debris from the explosion of 1687. The amount of destruction had been enormous, as we can tell at a glance looking at the damaged metope and pediment sculptures in the British Museum. The archbishop of Athens was glad to see these pagan images, already defaced over the generations, taken away by Elgin. The argument that Elgin saved a high proportion of the material is unchallengeable. As for Greek identity, that was much more closely tied to the Orthodox Church than to widespread awareness of the classical heritage, an artistic and intellectual heritage that in any case has universal importance and is by no means confined to modern Greece.

Then there is the question of whether the British Museum is a suitable place in which to keep them. Here the Great Universal Museum argument comes into play. The British Museum is one of the very few places – alongside the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York – where one can move freely from one civilisation to another, and understand the relationship between (in this case) the sculpture of ancient Greece and that of ancient Egypt, or trace the legacy of Greek sculpture in the Roman world. Besides, as Sir Noel points out, once these objects go all sorts of others will follow – the Rosetta Stone is already being targeted. Finally, if the aim is not to return these objects permanently but only to send them on loan, there are all sorts of legal obstacles – will Greece recognise British ownership? What happens if public opinion or a change of government in Greece results in a refusal to honour the obligation to send loaned items back to London?

One suggestion that Sir Noel does not mention is that the British Museum is concerned as much about the Duveen Gallery in which the sculptures are displayed as it is about Greek claims to ownership. Opened in 1962, the gallery has deteriorated, but raising funds from wealthy benefactors to mend its cracks and leaks will always be a challenge while the question of the marbles’ return to Athens is in the air. The Trustees, along with the British government, need to show confidence in their right to hold the Elgin Marbles by investing in repairs and in the creation of a new Elgin gallery of the highest standard.

Noel Malcolm is to be congratulated on his authoritative, thorough and precisely argued discussion of the Elgin Marbles. Its publication marks a very important step in the assessment of the claim for their return which, clearly, cannot be countenanced.

About the author

David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Samuel Harvard Abulafia CBE FSA FRHistS FBA (born 12 December 1949) is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge, rising to become a professor at the age of 50. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans