The assortment of Snodgrasses and Ponsonbys who make up the British Committee for the Restitution of the Elgin Marbles have launched yet another chapter of their long campaign to return the fragmented statues to Greece. How very appropriate, they argue, if the arrival of the marbles were to coincide with that of the Olympic flame later this summer. That is, presumably, assuming the Greek authorities get their finger out and manage to finish the Athens stadium in time; sending the marbles to Seoul, which has offered itself as a back-up location, would seem a little odd.
Were the committee’s campaign modelled around the idea of sending Greeks back to Greece, along with their restaurants, oily kebabs and unpalatable retsina, it would quite rightly be reviled as ethnic cleansing. Cultural cleansing, on the other hand, is the fashion of the day. There can barely be an artefact in our museums to which some distant land has not staked a claim. Works of art, goes the argument, must be seen in their ‘correct’ setting. For them to be held in museums many thousands of miles away smacks of a colonial power sucking the cultural blood from some poor oppressed people.
Yet civilisations have always exported people and ideas, so why not artefacts? To have the marbles in Britain is part of a healthy process of cultural exchange which has seen London Bridge sent to Arizona and many British paintings to galleries around the world. If a British politician on the make started beating his chest and demanding that British works in the Getty Museum be returned, we would think him a pompous prat. So why is it any different when Greek politicians work themselves into histrionics over the marbles? In any case, when you start demanding the return of goods which were legally acquired, as were the marbles, where do you stop? Perhaps one of the do-gooders on the restitution committee has a marble bathroom. If so, I presume he will be sending that back to its country of origin, too.