On Seeing the Elgin Marbles?

So much has been written about the Parthenon sculptures currently housed at the British Museum that it is hard to know where to begin. I shall therefore begin with a mention of them that you will probably not have heard of. These are the opening lines to the academic volume that had the most influence on my own studies as a Classicist and even shaped the approach of my PhD:

“Some years ago I was in the British Museum looking at the Parthenon sculptures when a young man came up to me and said with a worried air, “I know it’s an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn’t move me one bit.” I said that was very interesting: could he define at all the reasons for his lack of response? He reflected for a minute or two. Then he said, “Well, it’s all so terribly rational, if you know what I mean.” I thought I did know. The young man was only saying what had been said more articulately by Roger Fry and others. To a generation whose sensibilities have been trained on African and Aztec art, and on the work of such men as Modigliani and Henry Moore, the art of the Greeks, and Greek culture in general, is apt to appear lacking in the awareness of mystery and in the ablity to penetrate to the deeper, less conscious levels of human experience.”

E.R Dodds, “The Greeks and the Irrational, 1951

Dodds had a profound influence on me and on my studies, an influence that began when I was just 17 and continued into my field of research. He was a fascinating character in his own right, a close friend of W.H Auden and a Classicist so famous that his influence on the field is difficult to overestimate. That he should make the opening lines of his most famous and influential work a reference to a young student giving a one-star review of the Parthenon sculptures is both extraodinary and hilarious for those of us with an interest in such things.

Those who persist in calling these exhibits “the Elgin marbles” and who seem to believe that calling them “the Parthenon sculptures” is part of a modern Leftist Woke Agenda would do well to note that here was Dodds, a Good Old Fashioned Classicist (and indeed now long-dead white man), referring to the exhibit as “the Parthenon sculptures” back in 1951. I had not even noticed this until I came to look at the passage again this week, and it struck me as interesting. The Parthenon sculptures appear with constant regularity in the British press, as the Greek Prime Minister’s campaign to reclaim them for Athens intensifies and again recently with our own Prime Minister’s refusal to meet with him garnering criticism from all sides. The debate surrounding the British Museum’s ownership of the marbles rumbles on, with support from the general public intensifying for their return to Greece.

In academic circles, the debate has raged since the arrival of the marbles in London back in the early 19th century. For some, Lord Elgin was an imperialist vandal, who acquired the items by certainly immoral and possibly illegal means from an occupying force and then sold them to settle his personal debts. For others he was a pioneer, who intervened to prevent the further deterioration of the scuptures under the watch of a disinterested and recognised ruling power, with their permission, and who preserved them – for the good of generations to come – at enormous personal cost.

Annoyingly, there is an element of truth on both sides. Like most political hot potatoes, the situation is complicated and in terms of what Elgin did (or rather the people he employed did) I am personally conflicted. We now know that his actions did irrevocable damage to the Parthenon and that subsequent efforts to clean and repair the sculptures caused damage to the sections he excised from the building. On the other hand, it is also true to say that the Parthenon as Elgin found it was in a far worse state than is generally imagined by those in passionate support of the Greeks’ claim to them. During the 19th century, the Parthenon was not as it stands today, following a campaign of reconstruction by the Greek Archaeological Service. The Parthenon that Elgin found was in a real state following its conversion into a church and later into a mosque under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to that it had been used as a munitions store, and a great deal of it was destroyed in an explosion; much of the marble was chopped up and removed. All of this, I’m afraid, is par for the course in all cultures – large structures rise and fall at the mercy of competing forces and become fodder for new building programmes or symbols to be reshaped or destroyed. It is only with hindsight that we find this process appalling – at the time, the materials are fair game for redistribution.

From what I have read about Elgin I suspect that he was a genuine philanthropist, who believed his actions to be noble. His original plan was to take casts and drawings of the sculptures, to form a display of replicas for his own home. It seems to me that he became genuinely persuaded of the need to remove them and did indeed press ahead with the project at a simply staggering personal cost to himself. His desire for the originals was not, in fact, to adorn his own home but to fund a private museum for their display. The British government at the time were resolutely uninterested in them, for they were not the political football that they have become today, so Elgin did what wealthy men do – he threw his money at the problem. Ultimately, however, he ran out of money and had to sell them. He turned down more lucrative offers from various sources, including some chap you may have heard of called Napoleon, in favour of the British Museum, to which he sold the sculptures for half of what it had cost him to acquire them. It seems to me that his desire for the Parthenon sculptures to be displayed was both genuine and profound. This is not to condone his actions but to understand them.

For me, the issue is not so much what Elgin did but what we should all do now. I am not going to review all the arguments as they have been explored in detail by many writers more competent and knowledgeable than I. Google is your friend. Numerous broadsheet articles have set out the case both for and against and indeed the Wikipedia entry on this issue gives a comprehensive and reasonably well-balanced summary of the issues and spells out the case for return. For balance, this piece by Dorothy King, while 20 years old, gives some fascinating pushback on some of the more extreme claims by the return camp and has a particularly amusing take on why Byron – who wrote scathingly of Elgin’s vandalism at the time – might have held this view.

I will confess to always having had a selfish desire to retain the sculptures in London because – like Dodds was doing in 1951 – I rather like popping in to see them. While rail fares have gone up considerably, they remain competitive in lieu of a flight to Athens. On balance, however, I am forced to admit that the British Museum does not deserve them nor do them justice. If one compares the Acropolis Museum, which the Athenians have built to house their existing sculptures and in the hope of housing the returned ones, their situation in a somewhat dingy London display hall with no natural light seems something of an international embarassment. The airy Acropolis Museum, bathed in Athenian light, a huge glazed structure lying beneath the glorious sight of the Parthenon itself, is an entirely more appropriate home for them, and it would be an enormous pleasure to see them housed alongside their surviving counterparts.

While the Greek Prime Minister’s analogy of Elgin’s actions being akin to slicing the Mona Lisa in half is perhaps a little extreme, it is surely undeniable that to see the sculptures reunited in the Greek sunshine would be a joy for all who care about them.

Maybe even Dodds’ young student would finally be impressed.

Photo by Luna Zhang on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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