The Dangers of Losing Our Marbles

By Pattinson, Georgina | The Birmingham Post (England), June 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Dangers of Losing Our Marbles


Pattinson, Georgina, The Birmingham Post (England)


The Greeks may want them back but the British Government is still not letting the Elgin Marbles go. However, the ancient Parthenon treasures are not the only foreign artefacts in museums across the UK. Georgina Pattinson reports.

The debate over the future of the Elgin Marbles continues but the British Government looks no nearer to handing over the Parthenon treasures.

On a visit to London last week the Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, raised the subject with the British Government concerning the return of the 2,500-year-old artefacts, removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin and taken to the British Museum in London in 1817.

The marbles, composed of dozens of fragments of frieze and sculpture, which originally adorned the Parthenon, are housed in London's British Museum. But the Labour Government still refuses to return the ancient marbles to their country of origin, saying that they will be better looked after here.

And while Greece now believes the time is right for them to be handed back, Britain is standing firm.

But the marbles are not the only foreign artefacts currently housed in Britain. All round the country, museums are bursting with precious objects which cannot boast a 'Made In Britain' tag.

Lord Renfrew, director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, claims many of the world's great museums have their roots in collections which began centuries ago.

'We have to look at the history of collecting, which began in the Renaissance with popes and princes paying huge sums for what are now regarded as tired old Roman imitations of Greek statues.

'Collecting was a legitimate enterprise and from those collections the great museums of the world were started.

'The practice of collecting was also associated with people doing scholarly work and it was only in the 20th century that the two became separated. All the great museums of the world started in an acquisitive period when collecting, looting and digging was not separated. It is only since World War Two that we know the difference.'

He points out that large national museums also allow another country's cultural heritage to be seen, appreciated and understood.

'It is a fabulous feeling to walk along the corridors of the Louvre or the British Museum. The museums are making antiquities accessible and doing scholarly work. One has to recognise that there's an argument for the great international museum.'

Dr Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums' Association, points out that there are, in fact, relatively few requests from other countries for art to be returned. Most requests come for the return of artefacts that have a special or religious significance.

'In almost every case, the items are perfectly legally owned under British law but not legally owned under tribal law. A common scenario 100 years ago would have been explorers getting things from tribes without the tribes knowing what was happening or from someone who did not have the right to sell them.'

It means that Britain's museums are well stocked with the cultural heritage of other countries and, at present, the attitude of many museums is a 'finders keepers' one. …

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