It's difficult for anyone to visit the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum and not be both impressed and troubled by the impressive recreation of the Parthenon through the assemblage of the sculptures and fragments of frieze Lord Elgin removed from Athens in the early 19th century. Obtained with imperialist arrogance and intended for ill-advised interior decoration they were subsequently acquired by Parliament and gifted to the British Museum. Christopher Hitchens has spikily revived the argument that it's time to restore the 'borrowed' treasure to its original home so the world can appreciate the ancient work of art as "more than the mere sum of its parts". His New York Times opinion piece prompted by the opening - at last - of Athens' stunning looking, state of the art New Acropolis Museum and the imminent publication of his book on the subject, strongly suggest that now museums in Palermo, the Vatican and Heidelberg have returned chunks from their collections to Athens, its high time the BM followed suit.
However they were acquired, the Parthenon sculptures are a jewel in the British Museum's crown and debate has long ranged over the ethical, cultural and legal aspects of keeping them in the UK and the bizarrely grotesque status quo of having a head over here and a torso over there. Hitchens' new book will undoubtedly kick the conversation open again with interminable wrangles ensuing. Just imagine though, the Duveen Galleries standing empty - what would you like to see fill them?
Last Updated 19 June 2009