Writer Hitchens: Parthenon Sculptures Must Go Back More than 200 years after a British diplomat arranged to have large sculptures from the Parthenon shipped to Britain, author Christopher Hitchens says the objects should now be returned. A new state-of-the-art museum in Athens wants them, but officials at the British Museum plan to hold on to one of their most famous collections.
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Writer Hitchens: Parthenon Sculptures Must Go Back

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Writer Hitchens: Parthenon Sculptures Must Go Back

Writer Hitchens: Parthenon Sculptures Must Go Back

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The new Acropolis Museum opens Saturday in Athens, Greece. Charge for admission will be one euro for the first year - a small price to pay to see many of the Greek world's ancient relics, but not all of them. At least one collection of artwork will not be on display in Athens, because it's in London.

We're joined by Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor for Vanity Fair, author of an article about what are known as the Elgin Marbles, among other titles. And we'll talk about that. Mr. Hitchens, welcome to our studios.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair; Author): Nice of you to have me.

INSKEEP: What are the marbles? I mean, the name makes an American think of little-bitty marbles. That's not what we're talking about at all here.

Mr. HITCHENS: They are about 40 to 45 percent of the sculpture of the Parthenon, sometimes colloquially called after Lord Elgin, who was, in the early part of the 19th century, the British ambassador to Turkey, which then owned Greece as a colonial province. He managed to persuade the service to let him remove a huge proportion of the sculpture of the building and carry it off with the intention of decorating his home in Scotland in the county of Elgin.

INSKEEP: These are giant wall sculptures, right?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, there's the frieze, the story. It's a poem in stone. It's purely a version of the Panathenaic procession, which was an ancient ceremony.

INSKEEP: So, you see lots of people marching along.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. You see horses, other animals. There are 192 humans of one form or another, which is - happens to be the number of Athenians who were lost in the Battle of Marathon. So there's - it's been decoded, the story. But it only makes sense when you see it all together. It doesn't make any sense to have one-half of that story in London and the other half in Athens. It interrupts the narrative.

INSKEEP: The current.

Mr. HITCHENS: If you can picture, say - I say in my Vanity Fair article -cutting the panel of the Mona Lisa in two and having half of it in Sweden and half of it in Portugal. I think a demand would rise to have a look at what they would look like if they were put together.

INSKEEP: And is the government of Greece actively demanding that these sculptures be sent back from London?

Mr. HITCHENS: I would say they are very politely but firmly requesting to the British government and people in Parliament to make a contribution to the restoration of the world-famous monument. I should add that the president of Italy was recently in Athens, returning a bit of the Parthenon sculpture that had been in a museum in Palermo. And the Vatican Museum has also given back quite a chunk of Parthenon sculpture that it owned, as has a museum in Heidelberg, Germany.

So the tendency across Europe now is towards restitution and reunification of the sculpture. The British, obviously, have the largest contribution to make here.

INSKEEP: The British museum has put out statements making a number of explanations for why they'd declined this request, one of them simply being that vast numbers of people get an opportunity to see them in London.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, which, as has been pointed out, would be a very good argument for moving sculptures to Beijing, say. The main argument the British government used to have was that they weren't confident that the Greek government could look after them properly. Well, there was actually some truth to that, and there had been damage done to the sculpture that had stayed on the building.

But those objections have now been met. They've been cleaned. They've been moved indoors into a climate-controlled, very beautiful gallery that has a direct view of the temple. The obvious, natural home for all of them is Athens.

INSKEEP: So, have you had an opportunity to get a look at both halves of this giant set of sculptures - part in Athens, part in London?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. I'm very much honored by a private view of the new museum. And it's been beautifully arranged, with blanks left for the missing pieces. So you can walk around it and you can see with plastic casts what the story would be, and it makes you absolutely hungry to see friezes put together again.

INSKEEP: Although there is the difficult question that if these sculptures are returned, does that mean museums around the world should give back everything that they've taken from - the Rosetta Stone, any number of other artifacts in any number of other museums around the world?

Mr. HITCHENS: No. I think if the Rosetta Stone had been broken in two, there'd be a very strong case of putting them together. You see what I mean? There aren't very many comparable cases. In fact, there are not very comparable claimants, either, in that there are no Babylonians left. There are not Hittites. There are no Aztecs. Whereas the Greeks still speak a version of what you can read in the inscriptions in Athens.

There's a continuity to the claim there, and that temple is still their national symbol, as it is, actually, also of the European Union. So I think it's a very unique case and one that's - a live one rather than a dead one.

INSKEEP: Christopher Hitchens, writer for Vanity Fair, always a pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. HITCHENS: Very nice of you to say so.

INSKEEP: He's written a book about the controversy called "Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles." And you can see pictures of those sculptures at npr.org.

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