Eddie O’Hara is the chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles

The marbles are as Greek as the Olympics

Eddie O'Hara, Issue 112/06, p16, 01.06.2012
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The Olympic Games always remind us of our cultural debts to Greece. London 2012 brings his particularly close to home. Which is why the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM) is organising an international discussion to link the Olympic spirit with its cause.

What have we to discuss? Many of the traditional justifications for the retention of the marbles held in the British Museum are now historical curiosities, discredited variously as inconsequential, disingenuous, debatable, statistically dubious or just plain wrong.

The one traditional argument that continues to be seductively persuasive is the “floodgates” argument, that the return of the marbles would set a precedent for a flood of claims for restitution which would empty our museums.

This argument is specious and does not apply to the marbles, which are integral components of a fixed monument that is a Unesco World Heritage Site and were hacked off and displayed in another country. In this they are arguably unique. To reunite them with their monument need set no precedent. Indeed the onus of justification is for not doing so.

It is argued that the Parthenon cannot be restored to its original state with its marbles reattached. However, the Acropolis Museum in Athens is the one place on earth where it is possible to have a simultaneous visual and aesthetic experience of the Parthenon and its sculptures.

More recently, the British Museum has rested its case on its supposed status as a universal museum with a consequent higher order claim on the marbles than the parochial Acropolis Museum.

The debate about universal museums is well rehearsed. Suffice to say, we question the claimed status and prerogatives. However, it is good at least to see the argument turning to principles of museology.

It would be even better to have a more open debate with the British Museum about the marbles in the context of collaboration, interdependence and cultural mobility.

Why can’t it display its marbles in Athens and share responsibility for their display, curation and study with their Greek counterparts? Instead, we have not so much a debate as an entrenched position based on the principle of “What we have, we keep”.

Then there are the legal arguments for the retention of the marbles: the highly debatable question of whether Lord Elgin acquired them legally and whether this is testable by litigation; and whether it is or could legally become possible for the trustees of the British Museum to divest themselves of objects held in their trust.

Finally, there is the issue of cultural injustice. The Greek state, since its establishment, has recognised the Parthenon as an icon of its cultural heritage. Any doubt about this has been dispelled by the recent publication of a set of contemporary facsimile documents demonstrating this early claim for the restitution of the marbles.

According to the Faro convention, it is a violation of the human rights of the Greeks to deny them the continued enjoyment of this cultural heritage.

There is much for us to debate at our discussions and much for us to decide as we take stock. But if there is one message that we wish to send to the world it is this: as the London Olympics 2012 remind us once again of our many debts to Greece, there is one debt here in London that will not be repaid until the Parthenon Marbles are returned to Athens.

Eddie O’Hara is the chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles