It was more than 200 years ago when the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, stole a large part of the decorative marbles outside the Parthenon and other archaeological sites.
Lord Elgin – as he is known – brought them from Athens to London and placed them in the British Museum where they are on display, despite the persistent efforts of Greece asking for their return.
Perhaps it is the right time for the debate on their repatriation to reopen, following the presentation of the book ‘Who Owns History’ in which human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, quotes a polemic against the British Museum plagued by inaccuracies.
As it is well known, for many Greeks the Parthenon Marbles are a deeply symbolical and important link to their past. British supporters of this opinion also argue that Lord Elgin took the marbles without proper permission.
Back in 2012, a debate on whether the British Museum should return the sculptures to Greece was hosted by Intelligence Squared. Politician and former MP Andrew George, and celebrated actor, writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry, participated as speakers for the motion against Felipe Fernández-Armesto, historian, and Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which stand against this prospective.
During the discussion Stephen Fry “stole the show and Greek hearts” – as The Guardian stated – proposing that the restoration of the sculptures and their return to where they belong, would be a “classy” move.
“We should return the Marbles as a gesture of solidarity with Greece in its financial distress,” said Mr Fry, and as a mark of respect for the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of rational thought.
“Suppose that my neighbour’s house is on fire, so I am taking his paintings to save them before they get burnt. What if he comes back three years later and I refuse to return them by saying that they would be destroyed if I haven’t taken them. That’s not an argument. This is bestiality!” the actor said.

Opposing the motion, Mr Hunt underlined that the British Museum plays an important role in “cosmopolitan culture”, an argument advanced by the British Museum. “There is a need for collections – like its own – that allow many different cultures to be compared. The Marbles had been legally acquired with a permit from the Ottoman Empire and the Greek government had never challenged their ownership in an international court,” he supported.
“The idea that it was a legitimate purchase,” Mr Fry answered, “is like saying the American ambassador to the Netherlands went to Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded and made a deal with the ruler of Holland to buy Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’. Greece was under Ottoman occupation nine years after Lord Elgin ripped those beautiful, extraordinary pieces of history.”
He added, “Britain is a non-trustworthy country that yet has unreasonable ambitions. Let’s not remain like that.”
Mr Fry continued to propose the creation of an exhibition at the British Museum for which the country can be “fantastically proud”. The exhibition would show the maintenance of these incredible marbles over the years, but also their transportation back to the magnificent new Acropolis Museum where they can be reunited in the temple in the blue light of Greece.
“Greece is a country struggling desperately under debt…no matter how much the sovereign debt crisis means they owe us, we will never repay the debt that we owe Greece,” he concluded.

Chara Kaimaki

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