Peter Thonemann, Forrest-Derow Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham, chaired a lively ‘Circles’ debate on the subject ‘The Parthenon Marbles: London or Athens?’ Before the discussions started a vote showed that the audience was divided on whether the Parthenon Marbles should remain in the British Museum or should be returned to Athens in Greece. However, a closing vote showed a strong swing to the ‘remainers.’
Dominic Selwood, barrister, journalist, and historian, examined the circumstances in which Lord Elgin acquired the Marbles. “Half the original sculptures had gone for ever by the time Elgin arrived in Athens” he said, explaining that they were damaged over the years at the hands of the Athenians and attacking Venetian forces. Elgin was a conservator, rescuing the Marbles with multiple permissions from the Ottomans, he told the audience.
Paul Cartledge, AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, asked the audience to imagine having half the Mona Lisa in Venice and half in Paris. The Marbles were made as integral pieces of a building which still survives in Athens, he added, stating that the British Museum should be renamed the British Imperial (War) Museum because of the way it acquired some of its exhibits.
Author Tiffany Jenkins said that “squabbling over the past is not the answer.” Questioning the role of museums, she asked: “Do objects have a home and who owns cultural property?” The British Museum has benefitted from imperialism, but was not a driver of it, she added. Taking objects out of their context and housing them in museums can tell us more about those objects, she explained. We need to think about where objects are best accessed, best preserved and where they can tell the truth. Asking what the British Museum can offer that the Acropolis Museum does not, she highlighted the importance of being able to compare the Egyptian and the Assyrian Galleries with the Parthenon Galleries and being able to understand the sculptures in terms of world culture.
Professor of Classics at King’s College London, Edith Hall (Classics, 1978), commented on the effort that Greece has made to create the perfect home for the Marbles compared to the ‘crap’ presentation of the sculptures in the British Museum. “Athens is the best place for them to be appreciated aesthetically”, she said. She proposed that a temporary exchange of the Marbles with Greece for a year would be great for both countries.
The debate was preceded by a fascinating tour of the Parthenon Galleries, led by Peter Thonemann. He indicated the locations on the Parthenon where the friezes, metopes and pediments would have been located, and explained how the marble frieze would have been vividly painted and the existing drill holes were there to hold embellishments such as head-wreaths on the Greek horsemen and bridles on their horses.
Wadham ‘Circles’ members are alumni and loyal donors, who contribute more than £1000 a year towards the life and community of the College.
Guests continued to debate over drinks and canapes at the British Museum after the event.
Background information and further reading
Around half of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon can be seen in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum (56 frieze blocks and 15 metopes, along with much of the surviving pedimental sculpture). Almost all of the other extant sculptures are on display in the Acropolis Museum at Athens (36 frieze blocks and 39 metopes), side-by-side with plaster casts of the sculptures in London.
For the history of the Parthenon, the liveliest and most readable starting point is Mary Beard’s short The Parthenon, in Profile’s Wonders of the World series (2002; revised edition, 2010). Terrific photographs of the sculptures in the British Museum can be found in Ian Jenkins’ The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum (British Museum Press, 2007); an earlier book by Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (British Museum Press, 1994) is an excellent basic guide to the famous Ionic frieze.
Among more scholarly and detailed studies of the Parthenon and its sculptures, the work of Jenifer Neils stands out for its clarity and lack of pedantry: her monograph on The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge, 2001) is particularly warmly recommended. Her edited volume on The Parthenon from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, 2005) also contains several outstanding essays. The standard work on the Athenian Acropolis, with a thought-provoking chapter on the Parthenon, is Jeffrey M. Hurwit’s The Athenian Acropolis (Cambridge, 1999).
Joan Breton Connelly The Parthenon Enigma (Head of Zeus, 2014) is a book-length exposition of her radical re-interpretation on the significance of the Parthenon frieze as a representation of the Athenian myth of Erechtheus. If you can stomach the occasionally Dan Brown-ish prose, it’s a highly stimulating read.
Turning to the modern era, the most detailed account of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Marbles in the early nineteenth century, and their surprisingly circuitous journey to the British Museum, can be found in William St. Clair’s outstanding Lord Elgin and the Marbles (Oxford, 1967; third revised edition, 1998). The reader should be aware that St. Clair has a strong “returnist” agenda; whether this significantly affects his presentation of the actual events is a matter of judgement. As one would expect from the author, Christopher Hitchens’ The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (new edition, Verso, 2008) comes down fairly unambiguously on one side of the argument.
Recent publications by our speakers include:
• Democracy: a Life (Oxford, 2016)
• Ancient Greece: a History in Eleven Cities (Oxford, 2011)
• Introducing the Ancient Greeks
• Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris
• Keeping Their Marbles: How Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There (Oxford, 2016)
• Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority (Routledge, 2011)
• Knights of the Cloister: Templars and Hospitallers in Central-Southern Occitania, c1100-c1300
• Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers
Professor Paul Cartledge
Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge and was formerly the inaugural AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. He holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honour conferred by the President of the Hellenic Republic - one of the criteria for the award being demonstrable philhellenism. One way in which he fulfils the latter criterion is by his membership over 30 years of the British Committee for (originally ‘the Restitution’) the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, of which he is currently the vice-chairman. His most recent book is Democracy: A Life (OUP 2016), a cross-cultural, comparativist study of ancient and modern democracies, making the point among many others that for the ancient Greeks democracy was a culture, not just a set of political institutions and practices, and that within ancient Athenian democratic culture the Parthenon played an absolutely central, integrative role.
Professor Edith Hall
Edith Hall is Professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London. She is Co-Founder and Consultant Director of the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama. She has published widely on ancient Greek and Roman culture and their reception, her most recent book being Introducing the Ancient Greeks (Bodley Head, 2015). She is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and has acted as
Consultant to many professional productions of ancient drama at Epidauros and Thessaloniki as well as for the RNT, RSC, ENO and Shakespeare’s Globe. Edith has recently filmed a TV documentary Secrets of the Acropolis with Windfall Productions and is on the committee of the BCRPM.
Dr Tiffany Jenkins
Dr Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and author. Her Keeping Their Marbles: How Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There (OUP 2016), investigates why repatriation claims have soared in recent decades and shows that sending artefacts back will not achieve the desired social change nor repair the wounds of history. She is also the author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority (Routledge, 2011). Tiffany writes commentary regularly for the broadsheet press, was the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Beauty and the Brain’, and the writer and presenter of ‘A Narrative History of Secrecy’, broadcast on Radio 4 in winter 2016. Twitter: @tiffanyjenkins
Dr Dominic Selwood
Dr Dominic Selwood writes on history for the Daily Telegraph, including the daily ‘On this day’ online column. He regularly appears on television and radio. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a former criminal barrister, and has lived in Europe and the Middle East. He received his DPhil from New College, Oxford, and studied at the Sorbonne, Poitiers, Wales, and London. He is the author of The Sword of Moses and The Apocalypse Fire, thrillers featuring Dr Ava Curzon, an ex-spy working as an archaeologist in Britain and the Middle East. His history books include Knights of the Cloister, a study of the medieval Templars and Hospitallers, and the popular history book Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers, which is a collection of articles debunking historical myths. Twitter: @dominicselwood
Dr Peter Thonemann
Peter Thonemann has been the Forrest-Derow Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham College since 2007. He has been the College’s Tutor for Access, overseeing Wadham’s access and outreach strategy, since 2014.
He writes regularly on the ancient world for the Times Literary Supplement and the Wall Street Journal, and has written several books for a non-specialist readership, including The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine (Penguin, 2010, with Simon Price) and, most recently, The Hellenistic Age (Oxford, 2016).