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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: Brexit Britain, Nationalism and the Parthenon Sculptures

The end of the 1999 conference was bad-tempered and bruising. The museum press team and even the Director Robert Anderson seemed out of their depth in dealing with the amount of grievance in the room. Then only a few years later, Neil MacGregor, the new Director from 2002, signed an international Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums with other directors of ‘survey’ and national museums. MacGregor went out of his way to write articles for the press and have a significant media presence. The radio programme and book A History of the World in 100 objects (Radio 4, 2010) is MacGregor’s practical application of the universal museum as laid out in his patrician ‘The Whole World in our Hands’ article for The Guardian in 2004. Even the title, a paraphrasing of a traditional spiritual hymn, sets omniscient and godlike overtones. (The perfect counterpoint to this is the project 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object.)

Many other writers and academics, far more qualified to do so than I, have taken apart the idea of ‘survey’ or ‘universal’ museum (Hicks, O’Neil etc). However, it’s important to remember that MacGregor’s article

Image from the Opening Ceremony, 13 August 2004

was published on 24 July 2004, just a few weeks before the opening ceremony of the Athens’ Olympics on 13 August 2004, at which the opening flame lit up the Acropolis. It was, however, an Olympics mired in some controversy about the build and cost (isn’t every Olympics?) and the Acropolis Museum did not open until a few years after. Clearly, MacGregor laid out the British Museum’s stance shortly before the global spotlight on Greece and was supported in doing so by other museum directors across the world. MacGregor pitted laudable claims for supranational culture (good politics) against the limits of nationalism (bad politics). It is a standard equation of good politics as the ‘apolitical natural status quo’ (O’Neil, 2004, 193). It certainly seemed for a few years after 2004 that restitution arguments for the Parthenon Sculptures, outside of Greece at least, were on the back foot.

Take, for example, Dorothy King’s 2006 book The Elgin Marbles, which pointedly uses the official British term for the sculptures from the Parthenon (and elsewhere) as agreed on purchase from Lord Elgin by Parliament in 1816. Widely reviewed at the time, King gives an account of the history of the Parthenon Sculpture and, as ever in such accounts, finishes with a stance on restitution. She draws on the legal Ottoman possession law theory put forward by Professor John Merryman, asserting that there was no notion of Greece before 1833 and that restitution would be a return to ‘isolationism and nationalism’ rather than a ‘free trade of knowledge’:

The Elgin Marbles are quite happily housed in the British Museum, which saved them from destruction in the first place and which has cared for them admirably ever since. When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan. (King, 2006: 314-5)

This focus on a ‘free trade of knowledge’ and the ‘universal’ museum is interesting in the context of visa control and Brexit as it assumes that people can travel freely. Such an assumption is predicated on financial and national privilege. Students and academics from the Global South frequently struggle to get visas, even when sponsored by British universities and institutions. The hostile environment policy enforced by Theresa May and subsequent Home Secretaries since 2012 has only worsened an already difficult situation. Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016 – Brexit – and finally left in 2021, removing itself from freedom of movement within the EU. Greece is of course part of the EU and its people no longer have the freedom of movement to go and look at their sculptures in the British Museum that they had when MacGregor and King made their arguments. There were even rumours about a clause in Brexit agreement about the restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece in February 2020 (Satia, 2020: 435).

I visited the new Acropolis Museum in October 2009 (it opened in June the same year). The display of the sculptures from the Parthenon that remained in Athens is just one aspect of its display that is impressive. I loved the way individual sculptures (Kore and Korai) had been displayed and the preservation of the excavations under the museum is equally evocative. (The only Greek museum I admire more is the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki). It is well known that the original sculptures are shown alongside ghost like casts of the sculptures taken from Athens, most of which are in the British Museum. It would be very hard now to accuse the Greek authorities of not looking after the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens when there have been accounts of the leaking roof in the and numerous closures of the Duveen Gallery from 2019 to 2021 (Ruiz, 2021). The austere Duveen Gallery cannot compare to the vitality of the Acropolis Museum.

In the Acropolis Museum looking out from the sculptures to the Acropolis

What has made me fully support the restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece is the rise and clamour of British nationalism in cultural politics. It has taken me some time for me to recognise that it has always been there – the politics of chauvinism hidden under claims of universalism or superior stewardship. My own belief in fundamental values of decency, tolerance and freedom from prejudice in at least some British traditions, while recognising the ugly history of racism and empire threading through history and culture, has been shaken over the last ten years. This has been underlined for me by re-reading the account of a debate on whether the Greeks or Romans are better in 2015 hosted by Intelligence Squared at the British Museum. Classicist Mary Beard spoke for the Romans and Boris Johnson, former Oxford Classics student and then London Mayor as well as a Member of Parliament, for the Greeks. Johnson exhorts his audience to step into the Duveen Gallery to see the Elgin Marbles, which will make the case for him. As an aside he apologises to the Greek ambassador as they were ‘rescued quite rightly by Elgin from the Ottoman lime kiln’. Johnson differentiates the sculptures of the Greeks from those of other civilizations, arguing that the people of Athens are expressed as individuals:

‘Instead of the robotic processions of Sumerian and Babylonian and Arcadian armies and prisoners, there are human beings who are expressly differentiated from each other. One chap wearing sandals, another with snood and boots. . .’ (Johnson, 2016: 3).

This is a traditional art historical take on Greek sculpture. Johnson’s image of the Ancient Athenians is that of laissez faire individualists, as he himself is. The values that he ascribes to the Athenians of being ‘free, pluralistic, tolerant, respectful of the private behaviour of our neighbours’ are suspiciously like those he would ascribe to himself. Johnson’s view that we should ‘keep the Elgin Marbles in London [ . . .] where you can defy the health and safety fanatics of Brussels’ would be a surprise to the late Greek actress and politician Melina Mercouri and his audience at the Oxford Union in 1986 (Johnson, 2016: 11). The Greek newspaper Ta Nea has uncovered an article written by Johnson when President of the Oxford Union from June 1986, in which he makes the same claim about Ottoman kilns as in 2015, but argues that:

The Elgin Marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunlight and the landscape of Achilles, ‘the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea’. They will be housed in a new museum a few hundred yards from the Acropolis. They will be meticulously cared for. They will not, as they were in the British Museum in 1938, be severely damaged by manic washerwomen scrubbing them with copper brushes. (Johnson, 1986, repr. In Ta Nea 2021)

In 1986 Johnson sees Britain having a ‘guilt-culture’ rather than being ‘free’ and ‘pluralistic’. It is nonetheless interesting that he makes reference to the 1930s ‘cleaning’ of the sculptures, though in actual fact the cleaning was carried out by (supposedly) trained workmen, not washer women. (The misogyny inherent in the phrase ‘manic washerwomen’ is repellent).

Of course, Johnson’s change of heart over restitution will be no surprise to many who have had to live with his career in politics. The wider point here is that in his 2015 speech Johnson repeats the ancient historian Herodotus’ dichotomy between the Greeks and Eastern civilisations. In the Fifth Century BCE, Herodotus creates a sense of Hellenic identity as not just being about the country but about a wider Greece and Greeks situated around eastern Mediterranean. Johnson seems to imply that this Hellenic identity applies even in, as he put it in 1986, ‘whisky-drinking’ Britain. This ‘dichotomy of East and West’, as Priya Satia argues, is foundational to British historicism and imperial politics (Satia, 2020: 38). Interestingly, Mary Beard won the debate in 2015 and is now a Trustee of the British Museum, though there was opposition from Johnson’s government due to her pro-European views. (Nothing to do with Johnson losing the debate of course). Johnson’s view of the Greeks / Britons and the Europeans was so alien to my own understanding of Britishness and feeling European it opened my eyes to the nationalistic bombast hiding in plain sight.

Mary Beard has written about the ‘uncomfortable sides of the Classical tradition’ that ‘underpinned a version of white supremacy that stretches from Winckelmann’s admiration of white marble statuary’ (Beard, 2020). She is right to suggest that the legacy of Classics on racism and misogyny is complicated, but I feel dissatisfied in her call in 2020 to look for progressive causes supported by the classical tradition. As an ex-classicist who occasionally works on the reception of the Classics, I feel there is a need to investigate toxicity of classics thoroughly and indeed the historical tradition informed by readings of the Classics as Priya Satia does. A better example is how Katherine Harloe redresses this in the BBC Radio 4 programme Detoxifying the Classics. Listening to that, reading Nell Irvin Painter, re-reading Charmaine Nelson and Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men has made me re-evaluate that 1999 conference and led to these blogs.

An image of a cis white woman in front of the Acropolis hill.
On a hill facing the Acropolis in 2009. The last time I was there due to personal reasons and then COVID.

I have had to recognise my own colour blindness and complicity – conscious and unconscious – in perpetuating racism within the classical tradition in not seeing what I should have seen in 1999. (And at other moments in my research and museum / archive career). Without the racialisation of the sculptures as white and the aesthetic idealisation of white sculpture and skin, the cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures would not have taken place. As argued in the previous blog post, Charmaine Nelson’s recognition of ‘double whitening’ – skin and marble – is crucial to understanding chromophobia and how the Parthenon Sculptures were racialised as white in the British Museum. This colour blindness perpetuates racism as ‘though white people may exempt themselves from race, white privilege comes into view as a crucial facet of white race identity’ (Painter, 2010: 388). If we do not recognise whiteness and its racialisation through the material culture around us, including cultural icons in museums, we perpetuate racism. If we do not recognise the fact that this racialisation has been at the expense of people of colour, as well as white people not considered ‘fair’ enough by other white people, we perpetuate privilege. Privilege is not universal. In addition, no museum in the northern hemisphere in a country that has stringent visa and border restrictions and has collected material culture from across the globe can declare itself a universal museum.


Beard, Mary (2020), ‘Is Classics Toxic?’, A Don’s Life Column, The Times Literary Supplement, 21 December 2020: [accessed 10 April 2021].

Giannis, Andritsopoulos, “Greece is not the legal owner of the Parthenon Sculptures”, Ta Nea 26 January 2019: [accessed 8 April 2021].

Harloe, Katherine, Detoxifying the Classics, Broadcast on Radio 4 28 June 2021.

Hicks, Dan (2020), The Brutish Museum. The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution,London: Plato Press.

(2016), ‘Voting for Classical Greece’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 24 / 2, 1-12: 3.

King, Dorothy (2006), The Elgin Marbles, London: Hutchinson, 271, 299, 309.

MacGregor, Neil ‘The Whole World in Our Hands’, Review, The Guardian, 24.07.2004.

Nelson, Charmaine (2007), The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth Century America, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

O’Neil, Mark (2004), ‘Enlightenment Museums: Universal or Merely Global?’, Museum and Society, 2 (3), 190-202.

Painter, Nell Irvin (2010), The History of White People, London: W. W. Norton and Company.

Robertson, Geoffrey (2019), Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, London: Biteback Publishing.

Ruiz, Cristina (2021), ‘Is it raining again in the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery?’, The Art Newspaper, 11 August 2021.

Satia, Priya (2020), Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, London: Allen Lane

Smith, Helena (2021), ‘Boris Johnson’s zeal to return Parthenon marbles revealed in 1986 article’, The Guardian, 18 December 2021.


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