Ancient Artefacts: Losing 'Our' Marbles

The economic crisis in Greece has drawn attention to the question of where best to display treasures such as the Elgin Marbles. Jonathan Downs offers some solutions to a historical tug of war.

The debate on the return of ancient artefacts to their countries of origin is far from over. The economic crisis in Greece has bolstered the case against handing back the Elgin, or Parthenon,Marbles. Can Greece, in its present condition, take care of them properly? The same is wondered of Egypt when it calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone. The financial chaos now gripping the birthplace of democracy is perceived as evidence of a deeper malaise. Yet the Greeks were ruined partly by their need to borrow money to stage the 2004 Olympics and also to pay for the massive project to redevelop Athens. What had been a frenetic city, blighted by delayed construction, choked with pollution and imperilled by madcap taxi drivers, became a 21st-century Euro-capital the equal of anything north of the Alps. But financial problems escalated due to poor tax-collection and the reluctance of the wealthy to pay tax.

To argue against handing back the Elgin Marbles because Greece cannot pay its bills presupposes Britain is in much better shape. However, government cuts and the foreclosures and fallout from the banking crisis tell a different story. On the other hand, to return such treasures would be the greatest boost a nation such as Greece could receive. The New Acropolis Museum sold 11,000 tickets in its first five days of opening in June 2009 and its website had 260,000 hits worldwide. It had over 90,000 visitors in the first week. These numbers would increase with the return of the marbles, providing a national focus for a stricken economy.

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