Should the Parthenon Marbles be Returned to Greece?

Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, at the British Museum. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Marcos Houzouris)

A self-touted Hellenophile and punctuation freak, New Yorker magazine culture columnist Mary Norris, writing about Chinese President Xi Jinping getting on the bandwagon for the British Museum to return to Greece the stolen Parthenon Marbles was caught by surprise earlier this year at an event in Wales where she was asked what she thought.

She was totally nonplussed, she wrote in a piece for the magazine on whether the Marbles should be returned because she had been invited to the Hay Festival to talk about her book, Greek to Me, which has a chapter on the Acropolis and suddenly found herself put on the spot.

It wasn’t the first time she was asked her opinion, but the first time on British soil and she waffled so badly it led to embarrassing criticism after she answered that she believed the sculptures should be returned but said it wouldn’t happen.

“So I counselled acceptance: pieces of antiquity are strewn all over the world, I said, and maybe it’s best to see them as part of our global heritage,” and you can almost see those who believe the marbles should be returned sitting with their mouths agape.

“The interviewer then opened the session to questions from audience members, many of whom saw this as their cue to flee in order to get a spot in the queue for the next event,” she said she remembered about the kind of moment when you want to disappear.

She said she couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but not fast enough to avoid some slings and arrows shot at her later, including a scathing email from a Greek who had been in the audience and brought her up short for her non-answer.

“She wrote that she was ‘truly disappointed’ at my response, and so would be all my Greek friends. She was especially distressed that I had not mentioned the new Acropolis Museum, “an ode to the Parthenon,” the columnist wrote.

Earlier, enjoying the hospitality of an English friend who had put her up at her home and drove her to the festival, she said she was advised of the marbles being kept in the British Museum that, “it beats having the Turks use them for target practice.”

That was an awkward defense of Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin, who stole them 200 years earlier, saying he had permission from the occupying Ottoman Empire, which didn’t own them, and which British Museum officials keep citing as one reason why they won’t be given back.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 and its top floor was designed to house the marbles, with a full glass view of the Parthenon above, if they are ever returned, which seems doubtful as even Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis indicated his government wouldn’t fight for it, saying instead that it would politely ask the British Museum to lend them.

Coming after the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, with then-Premier Alexis Tsipras saying the marbles didn’t belong to Greece but to the world, giving up a legal fight led by British attorney Amal Clooney, wife of the noted actor George Clooney, it didn’t bode well.

Norris wrote that her obsessions with punctuation and Greek came together when China’s President lent his support for the marbles return and she saw the British newspaper The Times reported that, “The Parthenon Marbles include an 80-meter frieze depicting the Great Panathenaia, the ancient Greek feast in honor of the goddess Athena, the muscled body of an ancient Greek river god lounging in midair and voluptuous female figures.”

She said, besides correcting where a comma should go, that the sentence makes you long to see the Parthenon which seemed secondary to her grammar lecture.

But, she also wrote that there’s a school of thought – British, of course – that the marbles weren’t really stolen from Greece but were “rescued,” from the Turks and, implicitly, the Greeks who weren’t apparently capable of taking care of them.

“China, too, has had pieces of its artistic heritage fall into foreign hands. So Greece and China have this in common, and Greece has an ally in its campaign to bring the Marbles home,” she noted without rushing to give her weight to the cause.

She said that she has seen the Acropolis Museum and was impressed by its light-filled airy interior with glass letting light pour in on all floors and the view of the Parthenon from the top, up close at the height they occupied on the original roofline.

“The display leaves poignant blanks for the missing pieces. Maybe it’s true that if Lord Elgin had not taken the sculptures they would have been destroyed, by the Turks or the Venetians, or the pollution in Athens,” she said, seemingly undercutting her support for their return it seemed.

She said the British Museum has a point when it states that six million people a year can see the marbles for free – noting they could do that at the Acropolis Museum, even if for a charge, if they were sent back to their homeland.

With Greece in 2021 going to celebrate 200 years of independence from the Turkish occupation that lasted four centuries but couldn’t repress the spirit, language, or culture of Greeks, she said Greece “can take care of its heritage.”

“The river god Kephisos was not meant to be “lounging in midair” in London. He belongs in Athens, in the Acropolis Museum, anchoring the West Pediment of the Parthenon,” she said, something she didn’t say in Wales while then there.