Inot The Curse of Minervahis attack on Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon Marbles, Lord Byron imagined the divine vengeance of the goddess whose temple Elgin had plundered – not only on the vandal himself but on Britain, the country that has bought the “stolen prey” from the peer.
Elgin would suffer and Britain would one day find herself – it probably seemed far-fetched in 1811 – isolated, hungry and helpless, “hated and alone”, her politics falling into ignominy. “So in the senates of your sinking state / Show me the man whose advice may carry weight.”
Have you ever heard of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay? It wasn’t until I found out last week that this is what happened to Stephen Parkinson, the organizer of Vote Leave, once accused of whistleblowing a fellow whistleblower. The young anti-EU ideologue and previously campaigner against democratic voting reform (“No to the AV”) also worked for Theresa May and was rewarded with a peerage for unspecified talents.
Those meager qualifications for public office might not matter much by Lords’ prevailing standards, were it not that, following fresh Greek attempts to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles, Parkinson is now in charge of the government’s response, perhaps in future discussions. As DCMS Under-Secretary for the Arts, he is already committed, as a recent debate has shown, to defending the old arguments for the conservation of the sculptures, regardless of British opinion. majority, and endorsed the museum’s assertion, disreputable even at the time, that Elgin acted lawfully. “The Parthenon sculptures were acquired by the late noble Earl, Lord Elgin, legally,” he recites, “with the consent of the then Ottoman Empire.”
Like his like-minded colleague, “remember and explain” Oliver Dowden, Parkinson is reluctant to acknowledge in his fellow Europeans the nigh-sacred reverence for the homemade statuary that now protects the most paltry of British monuments from people like Lord Elgin or, indeed, like the deeply law-abiding rulers of the Ottoman Empire at the time. As foreigners demanding the repatriation of cherished 2,450-year-old sculptures that spent 200 years in Britain, Greeks should instead settle for Parkinson’s reminder that Keats, Wordsworth and Rodin greatly appreciated the recent BM tutelage, in which the sculptures present, unlike Athens, “in the great upsurge of human civilization”. It is a version of the “universal museum” defense for the holding of the marbles, which waned after the Greeks completed a museum in which to display the statuary safely, and now evaporates with the local belief that the WB arrangements, being invariably exemplary, are an international convenience.
What might have seemed plausible as recently as 2000, when the DCMS claimed the sculptures were “part of this country’s heritage”, has become absurd, even to Boris Johnson. His reflexive argument, as mayor, was that restitution was “Hitler’s agenda for London’s cultural treasures”. Last year, tackled by the Greek prime minister, he claimed the fate of the marbles was entirely the decision of the trustees of the British Museum. Which is, as you can imagine, wrong. The British Museum Act of 1963, prohibiting most disposals, shifts the responsibility to the government.
Whatever Parkinson’s worn-out reasoning, perhaps he should be commended for not attempting anything so desperate as the continuing possession excuse recently deployed at Unesco’s 2022 meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Promotion the return of cultural property. “Much of the frieze was actually pulled from the rubble around the Parthenon,” the museum’s deputy director, Dr Jonathan Williams, told delegates. “These items were not all hacked from the building as suggested.”
Even if Williams’ argument had gone unchallenged with, besides other evidence, the contemporary requisition of marble saws, it must be considered one of the most bizarre arguments against restitution ever advanced by any institution. university. Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said: “Lord Elgin used illicit and unfair means to seize and export the Parthenon Sculptures, without proper legal authority to do so, in a gross act of serial theft. She didn’t even mention that Elgin’s original plan was to use them for her own interior decoration, outside Dunfermline. But given the cultural significance of the marbles, how basely Elgin exceeded his Ottoman clearances is arguably as irrelevant as the colonial documents legalizing the Koh-i-Noor or the procedure by which the Broken Hill skull traveled from British-ruled Zambia to the Natural History Museum.
For the Greeks, as their representatives have repeatedly argued, the Parthenon Marbles are emblems of democracy and civilization and for years the British agreed that this very Athenian identity made them perfectly suited for a museum. Londoner inspired by the same values. In 2014, by loaning one of the Parthenon marbles to Russia (an act deplored in Greece as a “provocation”), Neil MacGregor called it “a marble ambassador of a European ideal”.
In future dialogue with his Greek counterpart, it will be up to Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, an undemocratically named nonentity who has effectively attacked European ideals, to perpetuate MacGregor’s uplifting understanding of cultural property. If Parkinson insists, like Johnson, that it is entirely up to the British Museum, he is simply confirming that we are witnessing, although more ostensibly than anything Byron has hinted at, the unfolding of the curse of Medusa: the president of the BM is George Osborne, Lebedev’s former student. His fatal recklessness with Britain’s EU membership aside, Osborne’s 2010 cuts of 30% to arts budgets and 15% to museums were understood, at the time, as an assault on cultural life. Visiting hours at the British Museum have, thanks to Osborne, been reduced.
The fact that the UK is, after years of Conservative leadership, increasingly recognized internationally as a xenophobic laughing stock, legally untrustworthy, anti-humanities and parochial, run by a bully obsessed with Hitler, might not be a decisive argument to restore the looted marbles to a more deserving European destination. But that is surely no more absurd than to say, as a reason for retention, that the discoverers are always keepers.