Brexit goes Parthenon and on and on
Many stumbling blocks in Britain’s voyage to leave the EU while both having its cake and eating it have been inevitable, but the most recent seems to caught everyone off guard. The Elgin Marbles are now front and centre as it appears that the EU will demand that Britain repatriates the ancient marble sculptures to Greece as part of the post-Brexit trade deal.
Between 1801-1812, approximately half of the surviving structures of the Parthenon were removed by the 7th Earl of Elgin (under highly suspicious permission and dubious translations of an official Ottoman decree) and shipped to Britain. Initially intended for the Earl’s Scottish home, Broomhall House, the sculptures were eventually sold to the British government for approximately £35,000 (the excavation and removal itself cost the Earl £70,000) as Elgin was going through a costly divorce and was forced to settle his debts. Another expensive divorce bill, it seems. The marbles were then transferred to the British Museum, where they remain to this day.
You might say there is little room for European extravagance in Brexit Britain, but it turns out the sculptures make one of the few European bodies that Britain is still attached to.
Since the early 19th century, there have been repeated attempts to repatriate the sculptures, to which the British government has issued the same response: it would set a precedent that would empty the world’s museums; more people can see the marbles in London than in Greece; and the Greeks have nowhere to put them. (In other words, we’re not giving back what we stole here because we’d have to give everything else back that we stole; and if the Greeks want to see their history they can come over to England and visit our nice museums – free of charge!)
It’s no wonder the British Museum is full of tourists, it’s just people paying homage to their own histories and cultures in a quaint, British, orderly queue.
The journey of Brexit has been tinged for many with a melancholic longing for the days of old, when Britain ruled the waves, and won two world wars and one world cup. So it’s faintly ironic that those stories come back to bite, and that apologising for who Britain once was is all that prevents those valiant Brexiteers from reclaiming a Britain that never existed.