The Elgin Marbles were obtained by Lord Elgin in Athens in the early 19th century. They are owned by the British Museum, which has exhibited them for more than 200 years; and they are widely regarded as the most important items in its entire collection. Over the last 40 years, the Greek government has been calling for their return to Athens. Reportedly, the Museum is now negotiating a deal involving some kind of long-term partial loan. So there are three options: keep, lend, or return. In this authoritative study, the eminent historian Sir Noel Malcolm analyses all the issues involved.
He finds that:
- the claim that Elgin’s removal of the sculptures was illegal is false;
- the claim that his actions were invalidated by coercive bribery is false;
- the claim that he acted against the clear wishes of the Greek community is certainly unproven and probably false;
- the claim that his actions saved the Marbles from an ongoing process of serious damage, dispersal and destruction is certainly true. Where current arguments in favour of the return of the Marbles are concerned, he finds that:
- the claim that this would reassemble the original artwork is false;
- the claim that Greek identity is essentially harmed by their absence from Greece is greatly exaggerated.
Where current arguments in favour of keeping the Marbles are concerned, he finds that:
- over more than 200 years they have become part of Britain’s cultural heritage;
- their removal would harm the status of the British Museum as a universal or encyclopaedic museum of world cultures;
- their removal would be treated as a precedent for many future returns of objects.
Where the idea of a long-term loan to Athens is concerned, he finds that:
- the British Museum must not lend items to a country or institution which does not recognise the Museum’s valid ownership of those items;
- whatever promises Athens makes, or whatever items it offers in temporary exchange, the risks that the Marbles will not be returned to London are too great.
He concludes: ‘the one country whose desire to exhibit them raises a truly insoluble problem is Greece, precisely because of the claims it makes.’
He recommends that:
- the government should affirm its support for retaining the Marbles, and should make no change to the current law, which does not permit the Museum to give them away;
- the Museum should revise its loans policy, explicitly excluding loans to countries which do not recognise the Museum’s ownership of the objects concerned.