‘Like a child in a messy divorce’: Mary Beard and David Olusoga tackle Parthenon Marbles debate in British Museum panel (2024)

The issue of the Parthenon Marbles, and whether they should be returned to Greece, was discussed in depth by a panel at the British Museum (BM) on 5 July, with calls for their restitution noted as an ongoing concern for the newly appointed director Nicholas Cullinan.

“[The marbles] mean something to Greece that I think supersedes our right to imprison them in this building… famously the roof leaked a few years ago [where the Marbles are displayed] which was probably the biggest day Twitter has ever had in Greece,” said the historian and panellist David Olusoga.

In eight years’ time, Olusoga reiterated, it will be 200 years since Greece first asked for the marbles to be returned, having contested ownership since 1832. “I think the case is overwhelming that they are an essential part of the culture of Greece and they belong in the beautiful museum that the Greeks have built in anticipation of receiving them.” said Olusoga, refercing the the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The former diplomat Rory Stewart, another speaker, agreed that the marbles should be returned.

Academic Mary Beard said that “Greece sort of owns the Parthenon Marbles… but it's very different from an equally plausible position which is what something like [the US-British philosopher] Kwame Anthony Appiah would espouse, which is to say that these are objects which are international, they belong to humanity, not to one particular bit of it”.

She added that the marbles are like a “child in a messy divorce case”. “I want to see those marbles shared I think realistically, more generously with Greece,” Beard continued. “I would like to see again the Parthenon marbles being ambassadors for a particular sort of Hellenic classical culture in which both Greece and the United Kingdom, and many other countries in the world, share; they can do their job not just in Athens or London—what about Beijing?”

Beard stressed throughout the debate that the British Museum might be viewed as the world’s greatest lending library, loaning a multitude of works around the globe. She wants to “get away from this idea that the BM is a great temple in Bloomsbury where, if you are a foreigner lucky enough to be able to pay for an airfare and get a visa to enter the UK, you can come and see our treasures”. Olusoga responded that the museum has indeed got to be less of a building in Bloomsbury and more of a library.

The panellists also discussed the merits and drawbacks of restitution and repatriation. Munira Mirza, the director of the prime minister’s policy unit in the Conservative government between 2019 and 2022, said it is “absolutely right that museums should return Nazi looted art”. Crucially many objects housed at the British museum were taken legally at the time, she added. “I would say that in order to return items, you have to be confident about the rightful owner. It's obviously more complicated the further back in time you go.”

Mirza subsequently raised concerns about the fate of items returned to native countries. “We have to be confident that if the objects are returned, they are looked after properly,” she said, citing the German government’s 2022 return of Benin bronzes that were “intended to go into public museums”.

In May last year, lawmakers in Germany’s ruling parties defended their decision to unconditionally restitute 22 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. A declaration by the outgoing president of Nigeria naming theoba of Benin as the ownerof the returning artefacts raised consternation in Germany, with concerns that world heritage could disappear into the private royal collection and not be on public view.

Stewart stressed that restitution claims and arguments are complex. “It often depends whether or not it's a country that we like, and are interested in, that's asking for the objects back,” said the former Conservative member of parliament. “It's also a question of what we choose to consider important—let's say the Afghans were looking for objects to come back; what happens if it was the Nuristanis [an ethnic group native to the Nuristan Province ofnortheastern Afghanistan] looking for some of their woodwork to return, who would speak for them?”

Olusoga tackled the concern that Western museums would be depleted if numerous countries successfully make restitution claims. “The other reality about museums that we don't often talk about is that their great problem is not the risk of empty shelves; the great problem is that they are groaning under the weight of historic over collection. [The British Museum] owns eight million objects and around 80,000 are on display,” he said. Beard added nonetheless that about “four million works are under one inch in diameter”.

Colonialism and its legacy dominated the discussion. “Museums infamously have used euphemisms in their descriptions in their catalogues, in their interpretation panels, so I think what we're dealing with now is a backlog of discussions about the colonial connections of multiple British institutions; [these are] conversations that we didn't want to have in the past,” Olusoga said.

Mirza made a counterargument, underlining the progressive aspect of universal museums from the outset."Something really extraordinary happens in the 18th century, which is that groups of collectors and scholars like Hans Sloane start to look at other cultures and other people differently… and treat them as worthy of studying, worthy of value,” she said.

She espoused “that museums are partly a product of some of the darker episodes of British history, but they also contained within them the seeds of what we now call liberal ideas: ideas of equality, of tolerance, of shared understanding of cross cultural divides”.

Stewart meanwhile delivered a subtle rebuke, asking: “How good are they [museums] at looking after their collections, or do objects go missing?” His remarks recalled the thefts scandal at the British Museum, through which more than 2,000 pieces were revealed to have been either stolen or severely damaged.

In his summing up, Cullinan picked out how Mirza implored us “to remember the radicality of the universal museum”, but was also careful to highlight Olusoga’s reminder of the “darker imperatives” behind the ideal. And what about Stewart’s concerns surrounding collections management? “I gladly accept the gauntlet you threw down,” he told the former secretary of state for international development. “Museums earn the things that they keep through their reputation and the way that they steward them, and [through] scholarship.”

The debate, titled Who owns the past?, was organised by The Times newspaper and can be viewed on YouTube.

‘Like a child in a messy divorce’: Mary Beard and David Olusoga tackle Parthenon Marbles debate in British Museum panel (2024)

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