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The Elgin Marbles Should Not Be Returned To Greece
We announced our first essay competition in October, asking readers to submit a 1,000-word essay arguing for and against their most controversial opinion. Last week we published two honourable mentions. Today we announce 2nd place. On Thursday we announce the winner.
Second place goes to Georgios Vazouras for: The Elgin Marbles Should Not Be Returned To Greece. Georgios also writes his own Substack, called Zibaldone, which you can find here:
Publishing ≠ endorsement. What’s more, the opinion of the writer isn’t necessarily their own. In several cases, they explicitly told us that they didn’t actually hold the controversial opinion but thought a good argument could be made.
Written by Georgios Vazouras.
The question of the reunification of the Elgin marbles is in no small part an argument about maximising the opportunity to appreciate great works of art which is provided by the British museum. An ancient and beautiful artefact has a value to a society akin to that which is conferred by a Mozart piano concerto or Shakespeare play, or by any other great artistic work. Some argue that the repatriation of the marbles should be carried out because their beauty, and therefore their effects as works of art, are greatly reduced by keeping the various pieces of a work of art in separate pieces. Doing so prevents us from appreciating the artwork as it was meant to be appreciated. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, keeping the Elgin marbles in a state of separation is akin to justifying the division of the Mona Lisa, and of placing each half in a different city. How then can we appreciate the beauty of the marbles in their present state?
But there is an artistic merit brought about by the preservation of the marbles in the British museum, in that they reside amongst the other great artistic monuments of the world’s civilisations. It is a unique experience to be able to meditate on the characteristics of various great works of historical art, which each vary so much in their form and content, but which also possess similarities between them which allow us to appreciate the common elements between civilisations, and the universal character of artistic beauty. And the educational value of the marbles in their present location is also invaluable, for they give both the public and scholars the opportunity to compare the architectural and cultural similarities between ancient Greece and other ancient civilisations, such as those of Rome or Egypt, directly.
Furthermore, the present state of the marbles in the British museum should be defended not only because the combination of its wares is a source of great artistic and scholarly merit, but also because the museum housing those wares is a unique institution. The historical circumstances needed to re-create the British museum can no longer be repeated, after the marbles have been given away, if nation states continue to act ethically by not engaging in the plunder of valuable artefacts from each other. Additionally, the presence of the marbles in the British museum may bring the marbles more attention than they would be given if they were repatriated (we assume that it is beneficial that more people know of the marbles, so that they may appreciate their beauty and gain historical knowledge). This is not only because more people would have the opportunity to see them in London than in Athens, but also because of the attention which has been brought upon the marbles in both locations on account of the controversy which has been stirred about their proper location. This controversy may have taught more people about the marbles, and thereby incentivised more people to go and see them, than would have been possible purely through advertisement campaigns carried out by either the British museum or the national archaeological museum of Athens.
One could also argue that arguments to repatriate the artefacts will be made irrelevant soon, on account of the possibilities that might be conferred by technology to produce facsimiles of the artefacts whose appearance is as close to indistinguishable from that of the originals as they can be made. If we can imitate the aesthetic characteristics of the marbles by having the technological means to reproduce them almost perfectly, then arguments for repatriation would have to state why the aesthetic appeal of the copies would not be the same as those of the originals. If the national archaeological museum of Athens could produce such a copy of the marbles, then what incentive would there be to have the originals returned to it?
In addition, the marbles should not be repatriated on account of the practical concerns involved. Since the marbles are considered amongst the most valuable extant historical artefacts, any risk of their destruction which could be incurred through the process of transportation should be avoided if possible. And there exists a risk in repatriating any set of historical artefacts, for it is possible that some disaster, such as the fire that ravaged the museum Nacional in Brazil in September of 2018, might result in the destruction of a large quantity of historical artefacts. If a similar fire were to damage the British museum, we would at least still have the Elgin marbles residing in the museum of Athens. By keeping the various historical artefacts of the world in the museums in which they presently reside we are preventing the possibility that a large portion of historical artefacts of a particular culture, such as the Elgin marbles, may be destroyed in one fell swoop.
Lastly, there are practical concerns regarding the expenses involved in returning the marbles. There are other historical artefacts in the British museum which have been removed from their home nations under similar circumstances as those of the Elgin marbles, so if the arguments for the repatriation of the marbles are considered persuasive, then why should we not return the Benin bronzes, or the many artefacts extracted from the colonies? But if we were to agree that these artefacts should be sent back, then we would also be depriving the livelihoods of the many who work at the museum, for what artefacts would they cater to?