Clooney and the Marbles

Oliver Miles

When George Clooney and his friends got special leave to be photographed in front of Leonardo's Last Supper the Italian newspapers couldn't resist pointing out that the last man to have that privilege was Silvio Berlusconi. And when he said off-the-cuff in Berlin that it would be very nice if the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin brought to London 200 years ago were returned to Greece, Clooney didn't help his case by confirming his view to the press in London but calling them the 'Pantheon' marbles.

Hollywood stars are fair game, but Clooney’s opinion about the marbles is not a foolish one and many people agree with it. I am very familiar with the arguments on both sides, having been British ambassador in Athens for three years in the 1990s and counsellor at the embassy for two years in the 1970s, and I have never been able to make up my mind.

The campaign for the return of the marbles was brought to the boil by the actress and politician Melina Mercouri, and is widely supported in Greece. Clooney has received an open letter from the culture minister expressing the heartfelt thanks of all Greeks for what he said, and sketching out the case for bringing the marbles home (as usual weakening it by using words like ‘looted’).

Strangely enough I was never officially lobbied on the subject, but there were a couple of times when it came pretty close.

The first was when a Greek MEP came to see me with a letter addressed to John Major calling for the return of the marbles to Greece, signed by a number of MEPs. He asked me to pass it on to Number Ten. In the course of a friendly discussion about the marbles I said that I thought the letter would carry more weight if it confirmed that the non-Greek MEPs who had signed it were also calling on their own national museums to return the Parthenon marbles that they held. He said he thought it a good idea and took the letter back. I never saw it again.

The second was when I asked to see the culture minister to tell him about a festival we were planning, Britain in Greece. I got no answer from his office, so I tried again. When I got no answer the third time I put a ferret down the hole to find out what was going on. My ferret reported that the minister, who was a distinguished musician but no politician, didn't want to see me because he knew that if he did he would have to bang on about the marbles, but he wasn't interested and didn't want to. I left it at that.

If I had had to defend the British Museum case I would have quoted Nikos Kazantzakis. By no means an Anglophile, he visited England just before the Second World War as a guest of the British Council. He spent a lot of time in the British Museum where he particularly admired the Assyrian sculptures, powerful but barbaric, and the Persian miniatures, exquisite but epicene. Also, of course, the Elgin marbles four-square in the centre, exemplifying the Greek ideal: μηδὲν ἄγαν, nothing in excess. ‘If Time had a home,’ he wrote, ‘and if it was itself a connoisseur prince, to love and to remember its beautiful past moments, for sure the British Museum would be that home.’


  • 13 February 2014 at 8:39pm
    gracebarca says:
    Did Clooney say Pantheon or is that a misprint?

  • 13 February 2014 at 11:33pm
    EvanWhitton says:
    Ambassador Miles did not give the pros and cons of returning the Marbles. I do in a piece I wrote 30 years ago. The piece can be seen at

  • 14 February 2014 at 3:03pm says:
    Just caught up with this, Oliver. By sheer coincidence I had posted this a couple of hours ago:

  • 14 February 2014 at 6:37pm
    Christopher Gordon says:
    No American has much high ground to stand on when it comes to speculative comments on ownership rights to antiquities. Getty, Boston MFA, the Met, George? Still, I did also believe by conviction for over fifty years that the BM's Parthenon sculptures ought to be seen together in Athens in Greek natural light conditions (along with the other existing 'missing' pieces).

    However, after several visits to the new Acropolis Museum, I have changed my view. The entrance ramp is impressive, but the way in which the majority of its unparalleled sculptures are displayed is shockingly insensitive and compromised. The old Acropolis Museum was indeed of its time - but the archaic and later works were visible in good light, and had a pleasing dignity and simplicity. The way they are now shown is terrible - too high, against the light, insensitive to scale etc. and frankly the Parthenon series just looks clunky.

    At least in the British Museum there is some calm logic to the display and they are shown at an appropriate height - whatever the shortcomings of the London light for these works, past mistakes over 'cleaning' that destroyed patina and so on. As they could never be restored to the Parthenon itself on the Acropolis, they could only be put into top floor space designed for them - and it's now my (somewhat sad) conviction they probably look better where they currently are - whatever the sins of Elgin and some of the legitimate doubts in relation to acquisition.

    The trouble is that the whole issue is now too contaminated by the politics and selective spin. Certain elements of the BM's leaflet in the Duveen Gallery can be said to be somewhat disingenuous, but at least it is there and readily available. The film originally shown in the new Athens Museum was tactically selective and conveniently edited out or censored parts of the history to spare the blushes of the Orthodox Church and the poor stewardship of the modern Greek state which left sculptures to degrade terribly in the polluted Athens air. There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this sad story. As the former UK Ambassador says, it's really difficult to conclude what is right and best.