Marble Fight Gets Messy

The British Museum houses a suspiciously large stash of ancient relics, pillaged from around the world by British explorers back when there were no laws against that kind of thing.

But the countries of origin of many of these treasures now want them back, and the repatriation of artefacts has become a hot potato between the UK and countries such as Egypt, Turkey and China.

New Acropolis Museum from Acropolis

Image of the New Acropolis Museum by Skoobie99.

The UKs argument had, in the past, been that the origin countries do not have appropriate venues to house and display the ancient artefacts. With two major new museums – theNew Acropolis Museum in Athens and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo – about to nullify this argument big style, the world holds its breath to see whether the British Museum will comply with demands to allow Greek and Egyptian artefacts to be repatriated.

The New Acropolis Museum, set to open on 20th June 2009, is Greece’s answer to argument that Athens has no suitable venue in which to display the Elgin Marbles (which were originally pillaged from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin), and was built to strengthen the country’s argument for their return. The trustees of the British Museum were invited to the down-graded credit crunch opening party, although, tellingly, there was no party invite for the relatives of Lord Elgin.

At the museum entrance, a signboard confidently describes the Parthenon Gallery as a “dress rehearsal for a permanent exhibition of the entire frieze”, reflecting the perhaps misguided confidence of Architect Bernard Tschumi that the marbles will definitely return. He says that the marbles should be the centrepiece of his $177million glass creation, arguing that fragments of the frieze should remain together, instead of split between Athens and London.

London - British Museum - Frieze of the Parthenon (Elgin Marbles)

Image of a fragment of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum, by WVJazzman.

But their return is looking increasingly doubtful. In a 2007 interview with Neil MacGregor, of the British Museum, he stated simply that the BM will never return their marbles to Greece, and possibly not even loan them, due to Greece’s refusal to acknowledge Britain at the rightful owners. Ouch.

The issue will be closely watched by Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who is hoping that the opening of Cairo’s impressive Grand Egyptian Museum will lead to the return of looted Egyptian treasures such as the Rosetta Stone, now housed in, that’s right, the British Museum.

Image of the Rosetta Stone by Kip Carroll.

Last year, Egypt made a formal request for a 3-month loan of the Rosetta Stone, so that it could be viewed by the first visitors to the new museum when it opens in 2012. A dispute is already raging over the Altes Museum‘s refusal to loan Egypt the bust of Nefertiti, on the grounds that it is too fragile to be moved, and Egypt is becoming increasingly angry at the reluctance of foreign owners to return, or even loan, its nation’s heritage.

With similar battles for repatriation taking place between countries all over the world, the issue of repatriation is like a mass divorce in which everybody claims to be acting in the best the interests of the children. With the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone sitting pretty as the BM’s two top attractions, it’s unlikely that they’ll give up their babies without a fight. As divorces go, this one is already getting messy.