Greece found another ally on its rally to bring the Parthenon Marbles back home, in the face of Guardian correspondent in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, Helena Smith. In an impassioned article on Sunday’s Observer, entitled “As a Briton, I hang my head in shame. We must return the Parthenon marbles,” Smith explained why there must be an end to the ongoing dispute over the Parthenon Marbles and why they should return home, while pointing out the time is right now for Britain to rectify a historic wrong.
“Though hacked and fragmented, a haunting shadow of the masterpiece hewn 2,500 years ago, it takes your breath away. A gift to behold under the Attic skies. But something more: the best riposte to any doubt that the Parthenon – or Elgin – marbles, the artworks that once adorned this magisterial edifice – but which have spent the last 200 years displayed in the badly lit British Museum – should be reunited with the place where they were created,” she wrote.
“I will not hide. In the immortal words of Lord Byron: ‘I am with Greece.’ And so naturally enthused that a squabble that should have been resolved long ago, if logic and common decency had prevailed, has re-erupted with such vigour following Amal Clooney’s visit to Athens last week,” Smith added, criticizing the fact that the debate was only reanimated after Alamuddin’s public support over the Greek request. Continuing, she recalled the efforts of late Greek actress and Culture Minister Melina Mercouri to repatriate the 88 plundered slabs that ended up at the other end of Europe during the Ottoman rule.
“Fifteen months ago, Athens requested that the row be mediated through the offices of Unesco, the United Nations cultural arm, after the organisation changed its rules dealing with stolen cultural property. Fifteen months later, it is still awaiting a response.
There is some merit in the argument that as the most significant surviving ancient artworks – and representations of the achievement of classical Athens – this masterwork of narrative in stone is not Greek but universal and, as such, belongs to the world.
But the claim, postulated by the British Museum, that they are better positioned in London to ‘serve world audiences’ is to make a nonsense of a lie. The Greeks first asked for the marbles under King Otto, their first king shortly after the nation won independence in 1830, long before Mercouri put the dispute on the map. To brush off that demand as Greek cultural nationalism is patronising in the extreme,” Smith argued, blaming London for hiding behind laws to avoid what would be perceived as a “defeat.”
“Every country, after all, has a right to the heritage that is an inherent part of its cultural identity. And Greece, underlining the importance it attaches to the marbles, has offered all manner of treasure in return. This is not about opening the floodgates (that other fear so often voiced by those who claim the antiquities are better off in London). Athens wants nothing else back – including that other pillaged masterpiece, the Bassae frieze, which in high relief depicts the Greeks fighting the Amazons and is also on display at the British Museum, but on account of staff shortages rarely available for viewing.”
Indeed, Greece has gone as far as to propose joint curatorship of the marbles through the establishment of a British Museum branch, within sight of the Parthenon, on the new Acropolis Museum’s top floor.
“As a Briton, I hang my head in shame but take heart in what the poet Titos Patrikios, an old friend, calls Greece’s ‘unbeatable weapon’; the common sense of ordinary Britons who for almost two decades have overwhelmingly endorsed repatriation in successive opinion polls. It was another poet, Yannis Ritsos, who summed up the marbles’ predicament best. ‘These stones don’t feel at ease with less sky’, he wrote. They needed the luminosity of Attica to be appreciated most…
Greece has gone through its darkest hour in recent years. The reunification of the sculptures would be a huge shot in the arm for a nation that in times of difficulty has always stood by Britain. Rarely do we have such opportunities to right a wrong. That opportunity is here now and in the name of everything it stands for, Great Britain should seize the moment. It would, as Stephen Fry put it, be the classiest of acts,” Smith concluded.