Wednesday, 17 December 2014

At least I've not lost my marbles

"Billes" by Xavier66 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 

Among the more unusual things we brought with us to Greece is a small drawstring bag containing about 70 glass marbles, the type children played with many years ago. The picture above shows the sort I mean.

The bulk of them date from my late father's childhood and a few have  been added from my own childhood.

I think the reason we brought them with us was with the idea of making something with them. However, that never came to fruition and now, if only for sentimental reasons, they will remain in their bag.

And that, for the foreseeable future is the nearest Greece is likely to get to having anything with the word marbles in it coming from Britain.

Yes, this is a rather roundabout way of taking on the thorny issue of the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles, if you prefer.

While in Britain people may have to stifle a groan, if they show any reaction at all, if the subject of the Elgin Marbles comes up, in Greece feelings run much higher. So it was little surprise to me to read of Greek outrage at the recent news that the British Museum, which holds the Elgin Marbles, has lent some of them to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg for that museum's 250th anniversary celebrations.

The view in Greece seemed to be that if some of the marbles could be transported to Russia then surely there was no good reason they could not all come back to Greece and stay here.

The whys and wherefores of the whole issue are complex and generally people seem to take a stance and then work out the argument which supports that view.

"Elgin marbles frieze". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
There is much talk of Hellenic culture, the legality, or otherwise, of what Lord Elgin did, whether the marbles would have survived if they had been left on the Acropolis, and the global appreciation of one of the glories of Western civilization. As I said, people tend to pick the argument that suits them.

The British Musuem seems fairly adamant that what it has, it holds. Meanwhile, the new Acropolis Museum in Athens has a display which clearly shows the parts of the Parthenon Frieze which could be filled in if the British Museum - and other museums - bowed to Greek demands.

A straightforward explanation of the Parthenon, and the marbles debate, is contained in Professor Mary Beard's excellent book Parthenon. It's clear and entertaining, but perhaps significantly, the good professor doesn't come down on either side of the argument. Too smart, I am sure, although she does present clear reasons for and against in the debate.

As a professional historian, Mary Beard may well feel the need to be slightly circumspect on such issues, but that's not a burden I labour under. So, in a nutshell, yes, I think the marbles from the British Museum and other museums around the world should come home to Greece. They belong in Athens and while they may never again grace the building from which they came, they should be close to it to be appreciated as one entity.

Will it ever happen? Obviously not on my say so alone, but surely the time has come for the marbles to be returned. What was legally acceptable in the 19th century would not be countenanced now.

I suspect that one reason the British Museum and other museums resist the idea of returning items such as the marbles is the fear it could open the floodgates for demands from many countries for the restoration of artefacts removed from them for display in museums. Maybe it would, who knows, but if it did surely that would serve to underline that when it comes to cultural heritage our debts are widespread.

* Many, but maybe not all, of you will know that to lose one's marbles means to lose one's wits. Curiously enough in my Chambers Dictionary the definition for this follows on from an explanation of the Elgin Marbles. Whatever some of you may think, I definitely have not lost MY marbles.

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