The Parthenon Sculptures

Today we saw the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum in London. They are beautiful; 6000 year old marble panels which tell a comic book story of a Greek mythological war between Centaurs and Lapiths, with the gods watching from the stands.

A photograph of the Parthenon Sculptures

The British Museum is a difficult place to be, this room especially. You’re aware at all times that a theft took place and the spoils are on display. Standing in this breathtaking room, a genuine wonder of human engineering before you, yet you can’t really enjoy the experience. If you know how these handsome marble sculptures found their way to London and why they are on display here, then you cannot feel anything but anger.

The marbles were stolen from the Parthenon in 1803 by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in order to pay off his debts—and even this he screwed up, as he didn’t get back the money it took to steal them. Since then, the British Museum tends to describe the marbles as if they were rescued by a crack team of scientists under laboratory conditions, saviors of a national treasure, and not by a bunch of debt-riddled goons who then struggled to sell them off once they returned to London.

Of course, the museum would be thrilled to loan the marbles back to Greece if only they asked...

The Trustees will consider any loan request for any part of the collection (subject to all our normal loan conditions). Successive Greek governments have refused to acknowledge the Trustees' title to the Parthenon Sculptures.

How insulting is this? Hey, we stole a national treasure—the first marvel of a democratic society—and now you can borrow them whenever you want. Of course they’ve never asked to borrow a treasure that you stole.

Underlying all this language is something especially British in its xenophobia and patronizing tone. The British want to take credit for displaying the finest example of Western art and engineering and yet cannot trust Greece to take care of their own history (despite the Acropolis Museum in Athens being more than capable).

Setting all of this aside, the fact that these marbles are separated—some in London, some in Athens—is tragedy enough. As Christopher Hitchens wrote more than a decade ago:

If the Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the separated halves had been acquired by different museums in, say, St. Petersburg and Lisbon, would there not be a general wish to see what they might look like if re-united? If you think my analogy is overdrawn, consider this: the body of the goddess Iris is at present in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London, and the rear part is in Athens. And so on. This is grotesque.

Despite this beautiful room I’m standing in right now it feels wrong that this half is on display so far from home. It’s a crime that they’re separated, and the cruelty is made clear by how easy it would be to undo and make right.

If only we gave them back.