Brexit Could Help the Case for Parthenon Sculptures to be Returned to Greece

View of the Korai in the Acropolis Museum, with space for the one at the British Museum.
View of the Korai in the Acropolis Museum, with space for the one at the British Museum.
(ARTFIXdaily photo)

The Parthenon, crown jewel from the cradle of Western civilization, needs its missing marbles.

This political era seems like a fitting time for Athens, the birthplace of democracy, to have her most iconic cultural artifacts restored to their rightful place.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens is just over a decade old, a young and impressive institution in the shadow of the Parthenon itself, which is perched just above on the ancient Acropolis. The award-winning museum holds the relics that have adorned the buildings of the Acropolis, except for many of its best-preserved sculptures---the ones sitting in the British Museum, a grand-daddy of an encyclopedic institution.

Since the new museum was built, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, memorably tried to get the 2,500 year old Parthenon marbles sent back to Greece. The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, had stripped them from the Acropolis when he served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. Elgin said Greece's Turkish occupiers gave him permission to remove the sculptures which he then sold to the British Museum. Greece has sought their return ever since.

A recent social media campaign called #BringThemBack has tried to spur attention. The Greek-led campaign seeks to collect 1,000,001 signatures to be able "to set the matter at the European Parliament." 

When I visited the Acropolis Museum last week, it was moving to see the obvious holes in exhibits, places where a sculpture is missing, left open on a hope that the space will be filled. Notably, one of the six exquisite Korai (maidens) that served as Erechtheion pillars is in... London.

Of course, much has been destroyed over centuries by various conquerors of Athens, along with arsonists and vandals. But, according to the Greeks that I spoke with, the best-preserved Parthenon friezes and figures were removed by Elgin during an occupation and therefore reside illegally in the British Museum. 

Brexit might help their return.

Argues Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: "Can the British Museum really lay claim to being a museum for the world when the British government has jettisoned freedom of movement in its Brexit negotiations? I think not. Send the Parthenon marbles back to Athens, and they are free to be viewed by any of the citizens of the European Union who should choose to travel there, free from restrictions."

Letters in repsonse to Cosslett's article included one from Richard Lambert, Chair of British Museum trustees. He states that the trustees "don’t see the objects for which they are responsible as negotiating chips in a political debate." 

While the politics of Brexit seemingly oiled the debate, the fact remains that museums' repatriation of cultural objects has recently gained momentum as a global movement spurred by ethical concerns over problematic provenance---from restitutions of Nazi loot to antiquities returned to Italy.

Greeks, along with hordes of international visitors, who make the pilgrimage both to the Acropolis and the new museum at the site should be able to see all the original pieces extant of a complete master artwork.

With new research and popular exhibitions on the vibrant hues that once adorned the Parthenon statues, visitors to the British Museum might not miss the ancient orginals in lieu of a fresh display showing the recreated pediment...an Instagram-worthy plaster one in full color.

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