LONDON – The return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece continues to make headlines as The Guardian’s Observer columnist Catherine Bennett highlights the ways in which the government in the UK persists in using outdated and false arguments for keeping the sculptures in the British Museum in her article titled ‘Why Shouldn’t the Greeks Have Their Marbles back? We Proved We Lost Ours Years Ago.’
Bennett begins by citing Lord Byron and his Curse of Minerva in which he “imagined divine revenge by the goddess whose temple Elgin had raided – not only on the vandal himself but on Britain, the country that bought the peer’s ‘pilfered prey.’”
“Elgin would suffer and Britain would one day find herself – it probably sounded far-fetched in 1811 – isolated, starving and impotent, ‘hated and alone’, her politics declining into ignominy,” Bennett writes, adding a quote from Byron: “Then in the Senates of your sinking state / Show me the man whose counsels may have weight.”
She notes that Stephen Parkinson, now Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, is responsible for the British government’s response to the request for the return of the Parthenon sculptures and “in a recent debate, committed to the old arguments for keeping the sculptures, regardless of majority British opinion, and endorsed the museum’s claim, disreputable even at the time, that Elgin acted lawfully.”
Bennett also points out that when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis brought up the issue to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year, “he claimed that the marbles’ fate was entirely the decision of the British Museum’s trustees. Which is, as you’d expect, false. The 1963 British Museum Act, forbidding most de-accessioning, turns responsibility back on the government.”
Bennett quotes Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni: “Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft,” adding that Mendoni “didn’t even mention that Elgin’s initial plan was to use them for his own interior decor, outside Dunfermline.”
She also points out that we may be witnessing the “unfolding curse of Minerva” through the British Museum’s chair George Osborne: “Leave aside his fatal carelessness with Britain’s EU membership, Osborne’s 2010 cuts of 30% on arts budgets and 15% on museums were understood, at the time, to be an assault on cultural life,” Bennett writes, noting that “visiting hours at the British Museum were, courtesy of Osborne, reduced.”
“That the UK is, after years of Conservative leadership, increasingly internationally recognized as a xenophobic, legally untrustworthy, humanities-averse, parochially minded laughing stock, led by a Hitler-fixated brute, might not be a clinching argument for restoring the plundered marbles to a more deserving European destination,” Bennett writes.
“But it’s surely no more preposterous than saying, as a reason for retention, that finders are always keepers,” Bennett concludes.