Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

It’s the most famous and unfortunately one of the largest art appropriations of Britain’s 19th-century Empire-building era, the 1801-12 cutting and removal of long yards of architectural frieze-work and priceless sculpture from the Parthenon, as well as a few other sculptural treasures from the Acropolis, back to England. Quite quickly the debate was sparked in Parliament and elsewhere over whether Britain — or the marbles’ owner and shipper, Lord Elgin, aka Thomas Bruce — should return the running tons of priceless friezes and sculptures. That debate has lasted since then, and since then has only grown sharper and more pointed. In this century, the British Museum has coolly and steadfastly rebuffed all requests and protests. The “Elgin Marbles” that the British government bought from Lord Elgin in 1816 became the very centerpiece of the museum’s world-class Classical sculpture collection. Central to the British Museum’s long arguments to keep them, the marbles draw six million visitors per year, dwarfing the numbers of visitors that Athens’ Parthenon Museum draws by a factor of four.

At 6 p.m. London on Saturday evening, July 30, just a little over 200 years since Bruce shipped the last of the marbles back to London from Athens, the ongoing, now international debate about Britain’s cultural debt to Greece has been given considerable positive impetus in an interview published in the London Sunday Times. In it, the Museum’s sitting deputy director, Jonathan Williams, offered a bold “active Parthenon partnership to our friends and colleagues in Greece.”

Citing the fact that the museum would like to change what he called “the temperature” of the debate, the esteemed Mr. Williams followed that with this: “I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found. There are many wonderful things we’d be delighted to borrow and lend. It is what we do.”

No details, of course, because the British Museum’s prospective partners, the cultural administrators and ruling politicians of Greece, do not seem to have had the chance to hear from the museum nor to state their own preferences. It’s worth noting that there are many objects in the museum’s collection whose provenance is not (yet) under dispute, and there is certainly no suggestion in the Times article or elsewhere that the British Museum is anywhere close to having the crate-builders in or booking the ship. But the change here does seem to be a significant one from the museum’s resolute two-century-old posture of carefully worded denials and refusals.

What we can say is that a door has been opened. Of course, the British Museum has many doors. Which door, leading to what kind of conversation or to an actual exchange with the authorities in Greece isn’t widely known, athough it’s a fair bet that this lancing of the notion in the weekend edition of the Times does indicate that the museum directors have at least begun to address some initial plans, if only on a “what-can-we-truly-afford-to-lose-to-them basis.

Why chat about it with the Times if it’s just hot air? While there can always be an element of playing-for-time in this particular debate — as in, it’s gone on for two centuries and a bit, why not stall the Greek demands by dropping this set of golden apples in front of them? But long range, there seems very little upside for the museum in that sort of game, which is to say, launching trial balloons that lead to little or actually to nowhere won’t anchor those grand panels of Attic marble any more firmly to the walls of the British Museum. Likelier is that the museum has stated what it wants from the Greeks outright, an ongoing dialogue through actual museum-level cultural engagement and loans.

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