The case for keeping the Elgin Marbles
However, what about the argument that since they represent an “essence of Greek origin” the Marbles should now be returned to Greece? This entity was supposed to be a democracy, and yet in the “democracy” that Pericles supported Athens when the Parthenon was built, 30,000 citizens elected representatives to a legislative assembly that ruled over 300,000 disenfranchised women and slaves. And while modern Greeks may project the embodiment of their own ideals onto the sculptures of the Parthenon, their original meaning for the ancient Athenians was imperial triumph, and for the ancient Spartans and Corinthians, imperial oppression. Marbles do not have a single, true value. They meant opposite things to the ancient Greek peoples. They mean something different to modern Greeks. And once again they mean something different to foreign visitors to the British Museum, where their juxtaposition with art from around the world prompts new insights into human cultures.
Meanwhile, if the curators of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens want to show what the original Parthenon looked like, with all of its parts together in a magnificent whole, modern technology is ready to project it. Michel Donelan, Minister of Culture, Law: Elgin marbles should stay where they are.
In cases like the looting of Jewish property by the Nazis, restitution or compensation makes sense. But, given the increasingly complex course of time, centuries-old historical injustices rarely fit into this shape and cannot be corrected in a reasonable way. However, today it is possible to correct racial injustice. This should be our focus, and not the sins of distant ancestors, the consequences of which were widespread and weakened by subsequent causes, including repentance and constant repentance.
And when considering calls for restitution of items brought to Britain during the imperial period, we must not be prejudiced against the general sense of colonial guilt, since the British Empire did not only evil, but also good. Not everything that was taken was looted. And it wasn’t all innocent.
Nigel Biggar is Distinguished Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford University and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (William Collins, £25), out Thursday. To pre-order a copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the website telegraph books