In The Curse of Minerva, his attack on Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon marbles, Lord Byron imagined divine revenge by the goddess whose temple Elgin had raided – not only on the vandal himself but on Britain, the country that bought the peer’s “pilfered prey”.
Elgin would suffer and Britain would one day find herself – it probably sounded far-fetched in 1811 – isolated, starving and impotent, “hated and alone”, her politics declining into ignominy. “Then in the Senates of your sinking state / Show me the man whose counsels may have weight.”
Ever heard of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay? I hadn’t until discovering, last week, that this is what became of Stephen Parkinson, the Vote Leave organiser once accused of outing a colleague turned whistleblower. The young anti-EU ideologue and, previously, campaigner against democratic reform of the voting system (“No to AV”) also worked for Theresa May and was rewarded with a peerage for talents unspecified.
These meagre qualifications for public office might not, given prevailing Lords standards, matter much, were it not that, following renewed Greek attempts to repatriate the Parthenon marbles, Parkinson is now responsible for the government’s response, possibly in future talks. As under-secretary of state for arts in the DCMS he has already, as demonstrated in a recent debate, committed to the old arguments for keeping the sculptures, regardless of majority British opinion, and endorsed the museum’s claim, disreputable even at the time, that Elgin acted lawfully. “The Parthenon sculptures were acquired by the late noble earl, Lord Elgin, legally,” he recites, “with the consent of the then Ottoman empire.”
Like his like-minded colleague, “retain and explain” Oliver Dowden, Parkinson is reluctant to recognise in fellow Europeans the near-sacred respect for homemade statuary that now protects the paltriest of the UK’s monuments from people like Lord Elgin or, indeed, like the deeply law-abiding rulers of the then Ottoman empire. As foreigners requesting the repatriation of cherished 2,450-year-old sculptures that have spent 200 years in Britain, the Greeks should content themselves instead with Parkinson’s reminder that Keats, Wordsworth and Rodin greatly enjoyed the BM’s recent guardianship, whereby the sculptures feature, unlike in Athens, “in the great sweep of human civilisation”. It’s a version of the “universal museum” defence for holding the marbles, one that diminished after the Greeks completed a museum in which safely to exhibit the statuary, and is now evaporating along with the local conviction that the BM’s arrangements, being invariably exemplary, are an international convenience.
What might have sounded plausible as recently as 2000, when the DCMS claimed the sculptures were “part of this country’s heritage”, has come to sound absurd, even to Boris Johnson. His reflexive argument, as mayor, was that restitution was “the Hitlerian agenda for London’s cultural treasures”. Last year, tackled by the Greek prime minister, he claimed that the marbles’ fate was entirely the decision of the British Museum’s trustees. Which is, as you’d expect, false. The 1963 British Museum Act, forbidding most de-accessioning, turns responsibility back on the government.
However threadbare Parkinson’s reasoning, he should perhaps be congratulated for not attempting anything as desperate as the excuse for continued possession recently deployed at Unesco’s 2022 meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property. “Much of the frieze was in fact removed from the rubble around the Parthenon,” the museum’s deputy director, Dr Jonathan Williams, told delegates. “These objects were not all hacked from the building as has been suggested.”
The degree of Elgin’s baseness is arguably as irrelevant as the colonial paperwork legalising the Koh-i-Noor
Even if Williams’s argument had not been challenged with, besides other evidence, the contemporaneous requisitioning of marble saws, it must rank as one of the more bizarre arguments against restitution yet made by an academic institution. Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said: “Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft.” She didn’t even mention that Elgin’s initial plan was to use them for his own interior decor, outside Dunfermline. But given the marbles’ cultural significance, the degree of Elgin’s baseness in exceeding his Ottoman permissions is arguably as irrelevant as the colonial paperwork legalising the Koh-i-Noor or the procedure by which the Broken Hill skull travelled from British-ruled Zambia to the Natural History Museum.
For the Greeks, as their representatives have repeatedly argued, the Parthenon marbles are emblems of democracy and civilisation and for years the British agreed that this very Athenian identity made them perfectly suited to a London museum informed by the same values. In 2014, lending one of the Parthenon marbles to Russia (an act deplored in Greece as a “provocation”), Neil MacGregor called it a “marble ambassador of a European ideal”.
In future dialogue with his Greek counterpart it will be for Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, an undemocratically appointed nonentity who effectively attacked European ideals, to perpetuate MacGregor’s edifying understanding of cultural ownership. If Parkinson insists, like Johnson, that it’s entirely up to the British Museum, he merely confirms that we are witnessing, though more pointedly than anything Byron conjured up, the unfolding curse of Medusa: the BM’s chair is George Osborne, the Lebedev alumnus. Leave aside his fatal carelessness with Britain’s EU membership, Osborne’s 2010 cuts of 30% on arts budgets and 15% on museums were understood, at the time, to be an assault on cultural life. Visiting hours at the British Museum were, courtesy of Osborne, reduced.
That the UK is, after years of Conservative leadership, increasingly internationally recognised as a xenophobic, legally untrustworthy, humanities-averse, parochially minded laughing stock, led by a Hitler-fixated brute, might not be a clinching argument for restoring the plundered marbles to a more deserving European destination. But it’s surely no more preposterous than saying, as a reason for retention, that finders are always keepers.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist