The Parthenon Marbles

May 27 2022

Image of The Parthenon Marbles

Picture: BG

When I went to the British Museum to see the new Stonehenge exhibition (cramped, and not really about Stonehenge), I looked in at the Parthenon Marbles. Many years ago, before I grew up, I used to think the Marbles should certainly stay in the British Museum. But now that I've changed my mind, I was struck by how different the Duveen Gallery (built to house them in 1938) felt as a space. Slightly oppressive (like so much classical architecture of the 1930s it feels like the sort of place Mussolini could stride through at any minute) and as an exercise in museum display, utterly hopeless. Most museums would have at least somewhere in the gallery a representation of the Parthenon itself, to show the connection between the Marbles and the structure from which they came. But evidently here it would serve as an obvious reminder that that is where they should always be. So there's no context. It's all slightly embarrassing.

It's also tempting to see the Gallery as a reflection of the contradictions which make up the modern British story. Where once we were so confident of our place in Europe that we effortlessly plundered it, now we have withdrawn from it. We have a government a little too deeply interested in the cultural and historical purity of Britain, and which wants to send at least the people who it thinks don't belong here back whence they came. But the Marbles, or the Bronzes, and everything else we stole from around the world? We'll keep all that, and just hope nobody notices.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Update - a reader writes:

Thoughtful paragraph and thank you for sharing your opinion. I fully agree with you, the marbles that the 7th Earl of Elgin “bought”  from the Ottoman guards, ( Greece was occupied by the Turks at the time) should be returned to the Acropolis museum.

Another adds:

I so very agree with your post just now. The Parthenon Marbles story joins a lot of other items in the multifarious soup of our imperial (and plundering) past….. there are constant awkwardnesses cropping up in the path but in all cases the need to - move on / acknowledge the overbearing behaviour / make amends -  indicates that modern diplomacy and ‘right-thinking’ need to have their way.

Your 30’s museum display comments can also be expanded where the context of an item gets unnecessarily and unhelpfully obfuscated in a lot of circumstances.

The Times today reports on some remarks made by Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival, also urging the Marbles' return:

“It would be as if our Stonehenge and Big Ben and the Stone of Scone all in one had been missing from our country for hundreds of years and was finally returned to where it belonged,” Fry told the Hay Festival.

He said the return of the statues from Britain “would be an act that uses a word that we haven’t been able to use of Britain’s acts lately, much: it would be classy”.

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