Writing in The Guardian yesterday, archaeologist Mike Pitts reports on the belief of some campaigning for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles to Greece that, “It [The Parthenon] inspired the Renaissance and Byron, and now the many who would like to see the bits in the British Museum – about half the surviving sculptures – given back to Greece.” But what part of Greece should the bits be given back to? Surely not (as Mike points out) to the Parthenon itself as that site remains a place of shambolic restoration where little or nothing ever seems to happen and where, in these cash-strapped times, that situation is unlikely to change (not to mention that the Parthenon is on a hilltop in the middle of one of Europe’s most polluted cities). So, if not to the Parthenon itself, then where? To the new Acropolis Museum in Athens? If the Elgin Marbles were moved there from the British Museum they would simply be moving from one museum to another – actually to a museum where fewer people are ever likely to see them.

For those who argue that the Elgin Marbles are somehow unique shows a bias towards Western culture and an ignorance of the British Museum’s collection (and purpose). The Chinese have an equally valid case for having the Dunhuang  paintings and manuscripts returned from the BM and the British Library – ditto Egyptian and Syrian objects to those countries. In fact 99% of the objects in the BM are unique, and a case could be made for the restitution of any and all of them. Result – a very dull if not half-empty British Museum.

There are several points in the Elgin Marbles restitution argument (and the restitution of museum objects in general) that might be worth remembering. The first (unless the law has changed) is that the British Museum is unable to dispose, by any means, of  an object in its collection. That, and national interests aside, would it actually benefit humanity to return the Elgin Marbles to their place of origin? The Marbles are a good example where it would not, as they would inevitably end up in the Acropolis Museum, not on the Parthenon, where they would be seen by fewer people than at present. Ironically, during the Olympics this year, more people are likely to see the Marbles at the British Museum than they would if they were on display in Athens. It’s also worth asking whether an object would be better conserved and displayed in its new location than its present location – if it isn’t then the case for restitution becomes null and void.

Other points perhaps worth remembering are that, with advances in digital technology and the very high standard of reproductions now achievable, is it really necessary to have the ‘original’ on display in its place of origin (or, in some cases, even on display)? Surely the guiding principle should be how well an object can be preserved for posterity while allowing the maximum number of people to appreciate it (or a replica of it). We can see that trend already at Lascaux and at the Takamatsuzuka Kofun in Japan. There is, perhaps, at least one exception to that rule – ie when an object such as the Haisla totem pole which Mike Pitts mentions in his article, or any other object still forming part of a living tradition, has been taken out of that tradition and out of the context for which it was intended.

Guardian article here. See also Greg Jenner’s article in today’s Huffington Post.