IF you go the Acropolis Museum in Athens, you can’t help but be struck with a sense of melancholy.
Therein lies a stunning display of the Parthenon Marbles, the series of ancient sculptures that adorned the temple of the Parthenon – arguably Athens’ most recognisable landmark that sits looming over the city from atop the Acropolis.
But the display is incomplete.
When Greece was under rule of the Ottoman Empire, a British noble by the name of Lord Elgin had half of the marbles removed and shipped to the UK, whereupon the collection would end up in the British Museum.
This half of the Parthenon Marbles – more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles – remains on display in the museum to this day.
It is an awe inspiring exhibit, make no mistake. But it’s impossible to visit their counterparts in Athens and not feel that a grave injustice is at play – an injustice that could be resolved with ease.
In the Acropolis Museum, the display includes indicators of the missing segments and visualisations what should appear in these gaps.
What Elgin did to this ancient treasure was not simply an act of plunder, but one of desecration. It is an affront to the heritage, the history and culture of the people of Greece.
In recent weeks, Britain has faced a long overdue reckoning with the voluminous unsavoury episodes of its past. This was sparked during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, at which demonstrators tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
This has the potential to go down as a watershed moment. Since then, discussion has boomed about Britain’s imperial past. The long standing campaign of #RhodesMustFall – calling for the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from Oriel College, Oxford – has finally achieved results.
It is absolutely right that these statues are taken down. But in addition to the destruction of monuments to such egregious individuals, Britain’s active reckoning with its past has the potential to be constructive as well.
A great deal of the collection of world heritage on display in the British Museum is stolen plunder from the days of Empire, this is no secret. The Benin Bronzes are another one of the most notable examples.
But few faced such destructive treatment in the process of their acquisition as the Parthenon Marbles. It was a beautiful display of ancient art, cleft in two at the whim of an outsider.
Not only would it be the right thing to do, but opinion polling also suggests returning the marbles would be a popular move. In a 2014 YouGov survey, 49 per cent of respondents said they would support their repatriation, with only 26 per cent against and 24 per cent who did not know.
If Britain is serious about atoning for its past, to return them would be a significant gesture.
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