The Mystery of George Clooney and the Elgin Marbles

This story has been developing through the week, and I thought it was about time we featured it on History Mine.

On Saturday, at a press conference for his new film ‘The Monuments Men’, Clooney was asked by a Greek journalist whether he thought the Elgin Marbles should return to Greece. He agreed that he thought they should. George! What have you done? The dispute over the marbles has been rumbling on for decades, if not centuries. With the official position being that they aren’t about to go anywhere, the argument isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon, so all this does is remind us that there is an argument in the first place.

My initial reaction was something along the lines of ‘Why the hell does George Clooney, an American actor, feel the need to make his opinion on this subject heard?’ But maybe that was a bit unfair of me. After all, here I am expressing an opinion on the subject and I don’t possess anywhere near the antiquarian and diplomatic expertise needed to resolve the issue. Plus he was asked his opinion by a journalist instead of forcing it upon the world.

Plus he was at a press conference for a film which deals with the subject of the destruction and relocation of artworks during the Second World War. It’s not an exact analogy, but the reason the marbles were in the UK in the first place is because the British Ambassador to Greece two centuries ago, Elgin, ‘rescued’ them from the Ottoman Empire. Clooney spent several weeks portraying a guy who did something similar. So maybe he does have an insight into this subject that is worth hearing.

Anyone who has a passionate argument in this debate tends to be sitting on the ‘send them back to Greece’ side of the fence. This is mainly because, as adults, it’s hard to really get behind a counter-argument that seems to amount to ‘Shan’t!’

Yes I appreciate that there are all sorts of patronising arguments about whether the Greeks are ready to have them back. Frankly I couldn’t care less about the rocks. It’s not like someone is living on them (which is more than can be said for the time Sean Penn said Britain should give the Falklands ‘back’ to Argentina). Even if this isn’t the destruction of their culture on the same scale that the Jews faced during the holocaust, I can see why it gets them riled.

The real reason behind the ‘keep them’ argument actually seems to be very similar to the one relating to Britain’s overseas territories. If we give one back it will set an ugly precedent. We give the Marbles back and suddenly the British Museum will be half empty, because most of the stuff inside it isn’t actually British at all. But if we’re talking about giving things back to people whose ancestors owned it a couple of hundred years ago, why not start with the US, and the Native Americans?

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