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Sarah Baxter on the History of the “Elgin Marbles” and possibility of their return
by Marie Lolis
After 200 years of captivity in the British Museum, a growing push to bring the Elgin Marbles back to Greece has been marred with debate on how and if they should be returned. Sarah Baxter, who once “gazed upon the sculptures” and thought “how fantastic they were” in the Duveen Gallery, found herself at the forefront of the discourse when she wrote an opinion piece in 2019 for the Sunday Times about returning the marbles in response to Emmanuel Macron’s plan to return treasures to Benin.
“For so long, no one used to give it any thought,” she explained. “One could think ‘Oh, they’ve been an integral part of the British Museum for 200 years.’…But then when you think ‘Oh, they’ve been an integral part of the Parthenon for nearly two and a half thousand years’, it sounds ridiculous,” she explained.
What Baxter did not expect was to be on the front page of the Greek news and involved in efforts to eventually return the marbles. “I was absolutely astonished. It sank in how much having the statues returned to Greece really meant to the Greek people,” she said.
Baxter, former deputy editor of the Sunday Times and director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook University, spoke about the history of the marbles and the methods of their eventual reunification to the Parthenon during a webinar hosted by the Center of Hellenic Studies of Stony Brook University.
In the talk, Baxter covered the history of the issue dating back to when Lord Elgin first obtained the marbles. Elgin, who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wanted to embellish his home with the sculptures. While claiming to have permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove some of the pieces in 1801, only an Italian translation exists of the actual document. However, Elgin removed major portions of the frieze among other marbles, much to the distress of many Britons. Lord Byron even decried this action, writing:
“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved”
Lord Elgin later became bankrupt and sold the marbles to the British Museum in 1816, where they’ve been held since with an act of parliament protecting the marbles from being returned to Greece. However, it was not even the Greeks who permitted Elgin to take the marbles, but the Ottoman occupiers. In addition, the narrative claims the marbles were “rescued” and “saved for posterity”, but in reality, the marbles were damaged due to Lord Duveen acid washing them to give them a more “white” hue.
“Even if Lord Elgin did acquire the sculptures legally from the Ottomans and even if the sculptures were ‘saved for posterity’, there’s no reason not to give them back now,” Baxter explained.
After writing the article, Baxter was invited to speak at a symposium at the Acropolis Museum where she became more informed and persuaded on the matter. This led her to become involved in the Parthenon Project, which believes in the permanent return of the marbles. They are trying for a “win-win” solution that will benefit Greece and Britain yet that definition differs for both nations. During the seminar, Baxter explored the different outlets of how this can be achieved and the major players in these discussions.
For George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum, returning the marble’s would have him immortalized in the history of the British Museum, in the history of Greece and its Acropolis Museum. Yet at the same time, Osborne doesn’t want to be known as the person who gave away the marbles and potentially triggered the slippery slope of others asking for their artifacts to be returned. In this situation, he must tread lightly.
One method would be achieving what deputy director of the British Museum Jonathan Williams calls a “Positive Parthenon Partnership”, which would temporarily loan the marbles back to Greece in exchange for other treasures. Osborne believes there could be a back and forth with the marbles to start and gradually return more to Greece over time. Yet, the Greek government does not like the implication of the word “loan” because it means that in a sense, Britain still owns the marbles. What would be the purpose of reuniting pieces of the marble if they will be returned back to the British Museum later?
Greece on the other hand is willing to exchange other treasures for the permanent return of the marbles. Prime Minister Mitsotakis too wants to be remembered for his efforts in bringing the marbles back to the Acropolis Museum and believes the marbles should be shown together, not fragmented through the plan that Osborne proposed. Yet, with the upcoming elections later this year Mitsotakis’ involvement in these discussions hangs in the balance.
Baxter explains that an opportunity has arised that can set these talks into motion and cut through what she calls the “dance of diplomacy” between the nations.
The National Archaeological Museum which houses many Greek treasures, such as the Mask of Agamemnon, plans to renovate which would close the museum for four years. Conversely, the Duveen Gallery where the Parthenon marbles are displayed is also in need of renovations. This pause in both museums could help pave the way for an eventual deal to be made as the treasures in both will not be publicly displayed.
In terms of public opinion in Britain, it has shifted. When Baxter first published her piece in 2019, she received backlash, with many listing a plethora of excuses as to why they belong in British hands instead of Greece.
“One thing I think a lot of British people don’t understand about the Parthenon is where it sits on a hilltop in Athens. You can see it from 360 degrees all around the city. I think when you see that and how important it is to the Athenian landscape, the whole city just revolves around the catalyst there,” she explained.
A poll conducted in 2022 by The Times and The Sunday Times of readers determined 78% were in favor of returning the Elgin marbles. As a journalist, Baxter could not have predicted that her work had the power to not just raise awareness in Britain, but the impact it had on Greece to be seen and heard on the matter. “It was really an extraordinary experience for me, as a writer, I’ve never actually had that level of feedback before,” she explained.
Her efforts have been recognized by the Greek government as she was invited to the presidential palace on numerous occasions and met with Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Recently awarded the Gold Cross of the Order of Beneficence, Baxter is incredibly honored that her work had such an impact on furthering discussions on bringing the marbles back to Greece. “It’s easy to understand that the absence of the sculptures is such a gaping wound for Greek people. It matters so much for them to have them back,” she said.