Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles: Snatched from northern climes | The Economist
- THERE is much to be said for moral clarity. Greece is insisting that the British Museum surrender the marble sculptures that Lord Elgin took down from the Parthenon and carted away in the early 1800s. Anything less, it says, would â€ścondone the snatching of the marbles and the monumentâ€™s carving-up 207 years ago.â€ť The Greek demand for ownership will arouse widespread sympathy, even among those who accept the British Museumâ€™s claim to the marbles. With the opening of an impressive new museum in Athens (see article), the sculptures from the Parthenon now have good cause to be reunited, if only for artistic reasons.
But sometimes clarity is self-defeating. A previous Greek administration was willing to finesse the question of ownership and co-operate with the British Museum over a joint display of the marbles. By hardening its position, the Greek government risks driving museums everywhere into clinging to their possessions for fear of losing them. If the aim is for the greatest number of people to see the greatest number of treasures, a better way must be found.
As curators all over the world will see it, those who call for the permanent return of the Parthenon sculptures from London are arguing for international museums to be emptied. Many other collections have a more dubious provenance than the marbles—think of the British Museum’s Benin bronzes, seized in a punitive raid in Nigeria; of the Pergamon altar removed from Turkey and now in Berlin; of Chinese treasures carried off during the Boxer rebellion and again during the civil war; of hundreds of works in Russian museums that were snatched from their owners in the Bolshevik revolution.
You cannot go very far in righting those wrongs without entangling the world’s museums in a Gordian knot of restitution claims. That is why, in December 2002, 18 of the world’s leading directors—from the Louvre to the Hermitage and from the Metropolitan Museum to the Getty Museum—argued for a quid pro quo. The Munich declaration, as it is called, asserts that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.