OPINION - I’m sorry, dear Greeks, but the Elgin Marbles simply must stay here

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Yesterday I made my way in the crisp morning sunshine to the British Museum to gaze at the utter magnificence of the Elgin Marbles, the future of which have become a thorny topic again. In December we heard it was likely they were returning to Greece, this week they are not. The chair of the museum, George Osborne, its directors and board have been holding protracted talks with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis since last year. Now discussions are on hold — there are too many red lines on both sides.

Not surprisingly, the Greeks have long desired the return of these great treasures, once part of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple in Athens. In the recently built Acropolis Museum there are empty sections, outlining each missing sculpture. Every Greek who visits must feel suffused with nationalist anger of what is missing. And ahead of an election, and buoyed by UNESCO’s recent intervention, what Greek politician would not try to bring them home?

To be clear, the British Museum is prevented by law from returning objects from its collections, and twice in the last six months leaked reports a deal is close have been slapped down, this week by Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, who called it a “dangerous and slippery slope”.

Museums around the world, and here in London, are already gifting objects back to their land of origin, but the Elgin Marbles are arguably the most high-profile artworks in an increasingly contested debate around restitution. The British Museum’s strategy these past few months has been to establish a model of mutual lending with the Acropolis, which would get around the need to talk about ownership at all.

But despite the stalled discussions, the controversy of what is morally right remains. Ahead of writing this column, it felt imperative that I experience again these ancient Greek sculptures within the museum that has housed them for so long. I arrived convinced that the marbles, removed from the much-damaged Parthenon between 1801 and 1812 by the Earl of Elgin, should stay.

But standing yesterday in Room 18, in the watery light from the dull glass roof above, I was struck by the sheer stature, size and beauty of what we had taken, and my arguments momentarily crumbled. How could you not romanticise about these exceptional cultural antiquities being unified again with their missing parts, viewed under the magical light of the Greek skies, with the grand ruin of the Acropolis in sight?

Whether they were obtained legally or illegally by Elgin will never be resolved. In the diplomat’s defence, many antiquities were excavated with permission by European archaeological teams. Stripping sections from the actual walls doesn’t, however, seem that defensible. Perhaps Elgin was a wily opportunist or was driven by desperation to save these great relics from further destruction. Most of the Parthenon friezes and sculptures were destroyed in a huge explosion long before he arrived in Athens and history could have gone either way. The remains could have been looted, destroyed, or melted for lime extraction. Elgin could not have known.

And we have, overall, been great caretakers. Plus, the British Museum has allowed millions of people to view the marbles, markedly raising their global cultural value. Our ownership has even put pressure on the Greeks to finally build their own beautiful museum to house their figures and panels. Yes, we should support one day seeing the Parthenon Partnership come to fruition, although for me the onus is on the Greeks to gain our trust if they are to be loaned — a permanent rotation every five years sounds healthy.

However, none of the above is at the root of why the Elgin Marbles and other great treasures like them must stay with the world’s great universal museums in the long term — like the Louvre, the Met and the incredible Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

It’s not just about historical contextualising. This is a dry description of what universal museums gift us. As you walk from room to room, passing through generations, decades and civilisations, we gain something far more valuable — we witness enlightenment, the unstoppable creativity of mankind through the ages.

We feel hope, solace, moments of deep peace, as we take in a colossal scarab, an immense Sarcophagus, the walls of an Assyrian palace and the beauty of Crouching Venus. It is how we find grace in humanity and diminish despair.

I’m sorry, dear Greeks, but the Elgins remain here.

Jacinda goes her own way

“There’s just no more in the tank.” After nearly six years in office, Jacinda Ardern has shocked the world by saying she is done and will step down from her role as New Zealand’s prime minister on February 7. Aged just 42, she has a four-year-old at home.

How many times did we, as working mothers, repeat that to ourselves, that we had no more in the tank, as we struggled through another week, juggling executive roles with the messy, wonderful, chaotic sleep-deprived role of raising small children?

Ardern has been careful not to mention her family as a reason. Maybe for her, though, the thought of another term trying to get that balance right just felt wrong.

Ardern, let’s not forget, juggled giving birth, a pandemic, led her country through its worst terror attack, a deadly volcanic eruption, and being, yes, a woman with a global profile. I can’t think of many men who would walk away from all that power and influence.

Penguins mon amour

During grim January can I please make a plea to Radio 4’s Today programme? Can you try and raise the odd cheerful story from somewhere in the globe to help us through the gloom? At 6.45 am, I was greeted with the news that by the turn of the century all penguins will be gone, due to global warming. Seriously? We don’t need that level of tragedy on a Friday morning; we got through Blue Monday, don’t drag us into a Blue Friday. The thought of no penguins was enough to send me deep back under the duvet, not wanting to emerge until spring. Please, Today, we need a balance of good news therapy!