Several hundred people gathered at Cadogan Hall last night, 11th June 2012, to hear a lively Intelligence Squared debate over the sculptures popularly known as the Elgin Marbles, which have been housed in the British Museum for just under 200 years. The topic was, ‘Send them back: the Parthenon marbles should be returned to Athens’. The debate (rather embarrassingly, I feel) was also broadcast live to the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Arguing for the motion were Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP and Chairman of Marbles Reunited; and Stephen Fry, self-described actor, writer, Lord of dance, Prince of swimwear & blogger (but not, you will note, national treasure – more of which later). Arguing against the motion were Tristram Hunt, Labour MP and historian; and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. The debate was chaired by the impressive TV and radio presenter Zeinab Badawi, above.
Andrew George (above) kicked things off by analogy, describing how weird it would be if, by some quirk of history, chunks from England’s neolithic stone monuments – such as Stonehenge or Avebury – had ended up in, say, Athens. Surely we would want such important historical objects to be reunified and returned to their place of origin, in order to recapture the complex structure’s original meaning, to enhance scholarship, and to pay homage to the founding culture’s legacy.
Tristram Hunt (above) argued that Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures was perfectly legal, and thought the Greeks should be terribly proud to have them displayed in the British Museum. If you believe in internationalism, and if you believe that the British Museum is a ‘world museum’, then you should want the marbles to stay put. Returning them to Athens would be like returning all Stoke-on-Trent pottery to Staffordshire, a pointless exercise that would leave the rest of the world culturally bereft. Lastly, the slippery slope argument says that if the marbles are returned, then everything else – from Benin bronzes to the Rosetta Stone - is also up for grabs, and we can’t have that.
Stephen Fry (above), in support of repatriation, spoke of the importance of the Parthenon sculptures to the history, culture, and identity of the ancient city-state of Athens. He rejected the logical fallacy of the slippery slope, declared Lord Elgin’s removal of them illegal (since Greece was occupied by Turkey at the time), quoted Byron, and argued that in light of current Greek financial distress, it would be a supremely classy act for Britain to return the marbles, replacing them with ‘The Parthenon Marbles Experience’ – replica casts of the sculptures, and an installation detailing their history, curation, and ultimate return to Athens.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (above) spoke last against the motion, and pulled his usual trick of deserting the podium for the auditorium floor – a symbolic gesture that rejects the authority of the stage and his fellow speakers, in favour of the wisdom of the masses. This inevitably meant that painstakingly placed lights and cameras had to be hurriedly realigned in order to follow him, and left the bulk of the audience unable to see or hear him clearly. His shameless, ‘play the man, not the ball’ argument could be paraphrased as: ‘Look up there on stage, it’s Stephen Fry! He who is on record describing himself as a national treasure! Who does he think he is?’ After a few minutes of this, cries of “Oh, come on!”, “Get to the point!”, and “Get on with it!” came from the audience, and Fry began mock-retching into his carry bag (see above photo) before vehemently denying that he’d made any such claim in his life.(Now, as all of Stephen Fry’s one trillion and forty-two fans know, his sparklingly erudite magnificence is intertwined with an endearingly humble self-doubt – meaning there is as much chance of Fry seriously proclaiming himself to be a national treasure, as there is of him renouncing technology and joining a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan.)
Fernandez-Armesto continued delaying and obfuscating several minutes more, until it was certain that he would not have time to argue any serious points – deploying jazz hands all the while, to distract the audience from his complete lack of preparation for the event. In the end, he mumbled something about scholarship being harmed if the Parthenon marbles were to be reunited and returned to Athens, but by then everyone was too busy wondering how he’d gotten his job as Professor of History with such appalling debating skills, to notice.
Before the debate, the audience was pretty evenly split on the motion, with well over 100 people undecided. By the end, George and Fry had won the motion with a majority of 384 to 125, and only 25 people still undecided. Many audience members, including several people of Greek origin, volunteered comments and questions, overwhelmingly in favour of repatriation. One unfortunate contribution, however, compared Athens’ New Acropolis Museum to Stanstead Airport, and this opinion was seconded by Fernandez-Armesto. I can only wonder what the Greeks made of all this, as they sat in their New Acropolis Museum, watching this farce of a debate beamed live to their HQ.
Afterwards, Stephen Fry kindly lingered to sign autographs and have pictures taken with his many adoring fans, and even seemed to make up with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto – at least if the above photo is anything to go by (I’d love to know what Fry was actually thinking at the time – perhaps something along the lines of, “Get away from me, you ludicrous, grandstanding old twit”).
Stephen Fry has written a detailed summary of his argument for the return of the marbles on his blog, titled A Modest Proposal.
To learn more about the Parthenon marbles, and the British Museum’s position on them, click here.
For upcoming IQ2 events, click here.