Dear George Clooney,
As another Lexington, Kentucky boy, I’ve often wanted to write a fan letter to you. (I’ve been told that some members of our families knew each other, though I’m a good deal older than you, and left my old KY home when you were a child.)
Monuments Men is the perfect excuse, as I’m now working on a feature and a video piece for The Wall Street Journal about an old friend, Anne Olivier Bell, who was a Monuments Woman. (Most will know her as the editor of the diaries of her aunt-by-marriage, Virginia Woolf.) I haven’t yet seen your film, but have tickets for its first screening tonight.
But now you’ve gone and said something silly about the Elgin Marbles (that’s pronounced with a hard g, by the way), and made it even worse by suggesting they be returned to the Pantheon, rather than to their original home in the Parthenon.
So I just have to add my two cents-worth (in truth, I’ve lived in England so much longer than in the US, that it comes more naturally to me to say tuppence-worth). As I’m sure you’re aware, the Parthenon friezes were endangered when Lord Elgin bought them in 1816, having shipped them to London with the permission of the Ottoman authorities. Yes, there is controversy, but title is clear: they were not stolen or illegally exported.
But, as another friend, Ben Macintyre, points out in today’s The Times (that’s our national Times, not New York’s), Britain has been a remarkably conscientious safe-keeper of these wonderful objects that I (and millions of others) have seen so many times in the British Museum. During the War your movie deals with, they were the subject of a magnificent preservation effort that was ordered by Churchill and carried out in total secrecy, so that the Nazis never even got wind of their whereabouts.
Carefully packed up in crates, the Elgin Marbles were hidden in the disused Tube tunnel at Aldwych, deep underground and protected from German bombing. They stayed there until 1948, safe and secure, though the Luftwaffe and the V1 and V2 rockets rained destruction on London, even scoring a hit on the British Museum and three on the National Gallery, breaking almost every pane of glass in its windows.
Britain’s stewardship of the Elgin Marbles has been faultless (save for an episode of over-cleaning). Would the world still have them today if they had remained in Athens? That’s a rhetorical question: the answer is almost certainly No. And is Greece now stable enough to ensure their security? Another rhetorical question.
As Ben Macintyre quipped today: “Clooney has earned a place in the ‘Parthenon’ of great Hollywood actors, but he should brush up on his art history.”
I expect I’ll love the film, though.