Losing our marbles?

It is one of the most controversial issues in the art world today - should museums disperse their co

With the opening of its glamorous new Acropolis Museum, the Greek campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles appears to have shot itself in the foot. A few years ago, the remaining pieces of the great frieze of the Parthenon in Athens - those not on display at the British Museum - were taken down from the long-suffering temple for conservation. It is now clear that they will never be put back. They have gone on display in the museum, mounted in a gallery that has the identical dimensions of the Parthenon. Joining them, set in their correct locations, are replicas of the originals in London. So far, so good, one might think. But hang on. The replicas are covered in wire mesh veils to represent, it seems, some kind of mourning. This is not didacticism: this is propaganda.

Greece's minister for culture, Michalis Liapis, has claimed: "For the first time, after 25 centuries, the sculptures are being transferred to the new Acropolis Museum . . . It naturally raises our demand for the reunification of the Par thenon marbles." It is not clear why. Now that the remaining Parthenon frieze has been taken down, there is little, aesthetically, in favour of the return of those parts taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. It is only a pity that the Greek authorities did not long ago take casts of their own bits of the frieze, for they have suffered terribly from the poisonous atmosphere of modern Athens. Now it is too late. The casts of the far better-preserved marbles in the British Museum hint, beneath their wire mesh, at the glory that was Greece, and so there must be an awful suspicion that the veils are there not to tell, but to disguise, the truth.

As a matter of fact, replicas - casts of originals - have a most honourable history, and it is foolish for the Acropolis Museum to misuse them in this way. Trajan's Column, for instance, is far more satisfactorily preserved in the form of the 19th-century casts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London than it is in Rome, where pollution and precipitation have ruined the surface of the carvings. If you want to see Trajan's Column, go to South Kensington, where it is conveniently cut in two. Admittedly, in that sense, it is a freak. But its very survival is freakish. In the 1960s, all the V&A casts - as indeed happened with so many casts of classical statues in art colleges up and down the land - were threatened with destruction on the grounds that such things were hopelessly out of date.

The moral ground for restitution of the Elgin Marbles, James Cuno argues, is even wobblier than the aesthetic. (It should be stressed that he talks more about objects from other parts of the world than he does about this notorious case.) There is just one argument in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles: the nationalistic one, and Cuno asserts that it does not count. This is at the heart of his radical analysis of who owns, as he puts it, "antiquity" (defined, since you ask, as something more than 150 years old). He divides the ownership, and the demands for ownership, of antiquities into two. On the one hand there is the international "encyclopaedic" museum, which he describes as "a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissipation of ignorance and superstition . . . dedicated to ideas, not ideologies". On the other hand, there are the dark forces of nationalism and "retentionist cultural property laws". It is not only the bien-pensants of the media who have espoused this cause: the international archaeological profession has done so.

The contradictions in this position are almost without number. For instance, archaeologists argue in favour of retentionism on the grounds that it will stop looting and destruction. But this has not happened. Looting is as bad as ever it was. Indeed, Cuno observes, nationalistic policies towards antiquities can make things worse and actively "promote a sectarian view of culture and encourage the politics of identity, at a time when nationalism and sectarian violence are resurgent around the world". Then again, without the encyclopaedic museums, many of those most loudly in favour of retentionism "could not teach and research as they do now. Much of their work is dependent on a policy no longer legal in the countries with jurisdiction over the archeological materials they study."

At the basis of the nationalistic claims are some fairly grotesque and unhistorical assertions, some more unpleasant than others, and Cuno implicitly poses the question: "Whose nation is it anyway?" Who, for example, are the Greeks? Anyone who has been to one of those wonderful banquets at which Greeks excel will know that within minutes several different individuals will be claiming to represent the Greeks of classical times racially, while dismissing fellow Greeks around them as impure impostors. All cultures, Cuno points out, are dynamic, and nationalistic cultural laws "deny this basic truth".

His is a cogent and powerful argument that he expresses with personal conviction. Cuno is moving about his first visit to the Louvre: "these magnificent cultures were not foreign . . . they were mine, too. Or, rather, I was theirs." And he cites the British Museum's founding am bition of "the world under one roof". He is equally moving about the affinity between "the recent rise in nationalistic and sectarian violence and the pervasive misunderstanding, even intolerance, of other cultures". It is an important perception. Museums matter.

Cuno's bold defence of the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities is more difficult to take, but then, he is director of the Art Institute of Chicago and so, we may think, he would say that, wouldn't he? But he says it well. "The real argument over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities is not what it appears to be . . . It is not really between art museums and archaeologists about the protection of the archaeological record . . . it is between museums and modern nation states and their nationalistic claims." And he has a trump card in the weighty shape of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum.

We do not know the archaeological context in which the Rosetta Stone was found by Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1799. In the current argument over the relative value of antiquities of this kind, the Rosetta Stone, Cuno observes, "would be pronounced meaningless". Intriguingly, if the stone were to be discovered today in some private collection, its publication would be forbidden in any archaeological journal. Egypt calls for the return of the stone, even though at the time of its excavation there was no such state as Egypt. There must, one feels, be as reasonable a case for the relocation of this famous relic to the town of Figeac in la France profonde, where a fine new museum celebrates its greatest son, Champollion, who realised that the stone's multilingual inscriptions held the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Christopher Hitchens's book is more guilty of special pleading than Cuno's. The blurb strikes an uncomfortable note, referring to Lord Elgin's removal of the marbles in overheated terms: "chunks" of the marbles were "sawn off" and Elgin subsequently "sold them to parliament to pay his debts". The whole thing is described as "this scandal". Well, no, as a matter of fact. It was not so at the time. Hitchens may hold it to be so now, but that is quite a different thing. This is a pity, because there is much historical value in his book and he has looked quite closely at contemporary and subsequent discussions of the sculptures. Hitchens is persuasive, for example, that Greek opinion at the time of the Marbles' removal was not merely one of indifference, as has frequently been claimed.

The big problem is his presumption that if only the recalcitrant British imperialists would repent of their sins and make restitution as an act of penance, the Parthenon could be restored with all its marbles intact. We now know that, because of the actions of the Greeks themselves, this can never happen.

Frankly, there is not much of the Parthenon left: a mere shell, to be glimpsed from the windows of the new gallery. We must hope that a full set of replicas - even though they record such varied states of preservation - will be repositioned upon its majestic frame. The original sculptures, it seems, everyone is now agreed, are better off in a museum . . . And Hitchens's book echoes with the siren song of nationalism to which, Cuno warns, we ought to stop our ears. Cuno wins on points.

Robin Simon is editor of the British Art Journal