Since Boris Johnson left office and then Liz Truss followed suit shortly afterwards, you may have thought that diplomatic gaffs, bloopers, and gratuitous insults to the representatives of visiting nations, would be a thing of the past. But no: Mr Change, aka Rishi Sunak, managed to insult the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis, and the entire Greek nation over a matter that the British Museum is endeavouring to resolve with great care.
Some have suggested that Sunak, being behind in the polls, thought he had set a trap for the Labour opposition as part of the culture wars narrative, by refusing to see the Greek PM, allegedly, because there was an agreement not to mention the Parthenon/Elgin marbles, at a forthcoming meeting between both PMs, and the Greek PM had allegedly broken this agreement by mentioning the marbles during his visit. There is some doubt that such an agreement was ever made. It is a part of the normal diplomatic discourse that heads of government sometimes receive criticisms or requests they really do not want to hear. They deal with these situations by the use of diplomatic statements, appearing to empathise with one’s interlocutor, while conceding nothing.
Not how we do things
If we look back, say 30 years, the period Mr Sunak recalled so well in his speech at the Conservative Party conference, it is hard to see Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and May, being so undiplomatic. Of course, Mrs Thatcher regularly handbagged EU leaders, and I will pass a veil over the modus operandi of Johnson. Liz Truss, of course, was not in office long enough to drop many diplomatic bricks, but even she is partial to making odd statements, especially where the subject of cheese is concerned, and so it is possible that she might have outdone Mr Sunak.
Sunak’s plan to lure Starmer into a culture trap over the marbles failed spectacularly, as public opinion appears to be in favour of sending the marbles back by employing some kind of long-term loan scheme with Greece. Aside from the farcical bungling shown by this episode, which exposes the lack of competence within the Sunak ministry, what are the issues behind the provenance of works of art?
Whose marbles are they, anyway?
The ownership of art is sometimes used as a diversion from troubles facing a government on the home front, and in the case of the Parthenon marbles, both sides have economic issues causing them difficulties.
When the marbles were carved there was no Greek state, just a series of city-states, of which Athens was a major power – in the same way that there was no UK, when Stonehenge was built. To suggest that the current nation-state of Greece is directly linked to the Parthenon marbles is tenuous at best.
I also think that the charge of colonialism and imperialism weighed against the UK over the marbles is both unfair and ill-judged. Britain was a midwife at the birth of the modern Greek state and has been a firm friend and ally since the 1830s. The last major sea battle using wooden sailing vessels was fought at Navarino in 1827, was fought by Britain, France and Russia, destroying a joint Ottoman-Egyptian fleet, and led to the founding of the Greek state in 1832 (The Treaty of Constantinople).
Let the BM negociate in peace
That said, Greece has sought the return of the marbles since then and, now that there is a safe haven in Athens for them, they should be reunited with other pieces retrieved from elsewhere. The British Museum is working on a deal that may benefit both sides and they should be allowed to negotiate in good faith.
We can replicate the marbles before they go on permanent loan, as the technology to produce facsimiles is now very sophisticated. In fact, I would venture to suggest that the average visitor would not be able to differentiate between a copy and the original.
The traditionalists fear that loaning the marbles back to Greece is the thin end of a wedge which would denude the great museums of their collections and purpose. This is a possibility but, with a measure of fairness and understanding, this need not happen. Where the country of origin can show that (a) an artefact was removed under duress, and (b) will be guaranteed safe custody, then facsimiles can be made, and an orderly handover/loan can begin.
What are museums for?
This may be a good time to consider what the purpose of a museum is. Is it merely to house artefacts, label them, and keep them in good condition, or is it to interpret their place in the world, and to inform and educate the visitor? During the recent missing-items scandal, it was found that the British Museum has thousands of items that are not fully recorded and that some of these might have been listed on eBay. This has not helped the case for warehousing the nation’s historic artefacts in the current manner, or for retaining the marbles.
While the arguments have centred on famous artefacts like the marbles and the Benin bronzes, the British Museum acts as a repository for artefacts generated within England (The devolved nations have their own museums).
The detectorist’s hobby is unearthing artefacts daily, and some are of national significance. The British Museum is one of the world’s leading museums, but should it do more outreach work and put more of its collection on tour in the UK? Rather than keep artefacts stored away, never seeing the light of day, it would be better that they go on tour in the country, and even be lent to schools and colleges under strict supervision to increase the understanding of history in the population at large.
Time to debate repatriation
The British Museum is a major tourist attraction, but it is the nation’s museum, not just London’s. Perhaps levelling up should apply here so that those not living in London can see more of one of the world’s great collections.
So, where does this leave the argument about the marbles? It would be damaging to disperse the collections of the world’s great museums based on nationalism and claims of ownership, but each case should be considered carefully and with empathy so that a suitable agreement should not be ruled out. In clear cases where artefacts were received in difficult circumstances to defend, an honest debate about their repatriation should take place.
Finally, it is somewhat tawdry to involve historic artefacts with base politics and, worse still, it is poor form gratuitously to insult one of our longest-standing allies, on a matter that can be resolved with goodwill between friends.