The Parthenon marbles have been a source of tension between Greece and England for 200 years (The Parthenon marbles belong in Greece – so why is restitution so hard to swallow?, 5 February). Lord Byron urged their return in the 1820s. Last year, Unesco did the same. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Britons favour repatriation. Unfortunately, the debate has become a zero-sum game, with the suggestion that there can be but a single winner.
Last month, at an event at Keats House in London, I tried to change that calculus: speaking alongside the Greek ambassador, I offered to reconstruct the marbles held by the British Museum. The copies, carved from the same stone, would be virtually identical to the originals.
The museum justifies its retention of the marbles on the ground that this allows visitors to see Phidias’s masterpiece in the context of global culture. High-quality reconstructions would serve that purpose just as well. Reconstructions would also acknowledge Britons’ special attachment to the marbles. As the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum have proved, people can fall in love with copies. The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s reconstructed Arch of Palmyra, unveiled on Trafalgar Square in 2016 before travelling to other cities around the world, has attracted more than 15 million visitors. Many have found the reconstruction more compelling than the original, embodying as it does a powerful gesture of international goodwill.
The histories of Greece and Britain are deeply intertwined, and it is a pity that a prominent exhibit in our national museum has become a perpetual symbol of discord between the two countries.
In the mid-19th century, Britain returned the Ionian islands to Greece to celebrate the coronation of the late Duke of Edinburgh’s grandfather as King of Greece. Perhaps the Queen’s diamond jubilee provides a fitting occasion to restore a treasured relic of antiquity to her late husband’s homeland.
Institute for Digital Archaeology
Charlotte Higgins explains the three legal criteria by which items can be deaccessioned from the British Museum’s collection under the 1963 British Museum Act and its amendments. It is now time for another amendment, which could be set it motion by a pro-repatriation MP. Adding a fourth criterion, for the deaccession of items for repatriation, would allow for ethical decisions to be made independently by trustees. The British Museum’s vaults are huge, and other items can be brought into the daylight without diminishing the value of the museum to visitors.
Anna Watson, London
One of the many reasons why Britain has refused to return the marbles to Greece is Neil MacGregor’s suggestion that the British Museum is a “universal” museum based on Enlightenment principles, “a place of the world, for the world”, as Charlotte Higgins states. This reasoning looks particularly specious given the catastrophic fall in the number of school trips to the UK from Europe and other countries post-Brexit.
Alan Gavurin, London
Please can we have a moratorium on discussion about the return of the Parthenon marbles until the French return the Bayeux tapestry, (which was made in England, according to the experts)?
Richard Pickvance, London