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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 13:33 GMT
The perils of losing your marbles
The Great Court
Short on antiquities: The Great Court
Do visitors to the British Museum really care about the Elgin Marbles? And would letting them go back to Greece compound the museum's financial problems?

You don't have to be an ancient historian to appreciate the main attraction at the British Museum these days. In fact, you don't have to be interested in antiquities at all.

The Great Court, the centrepiece of this historic institution in London's Bloomsbury quarter, is doing a pretty good job attracting visitors by itself.

Collection bins
Helping to cut the 5m deficit
Recently covered by a huge conservatory-style glass roof, designed by the top architect Lord Foster, the hall gives welcome shelter from the notorious British climate.

And it allows ample opportunity for something tourists and locals alike seem to enjoy best of all - spending money.

The cavernous court contains several souvenir shops, a bookshop, two self-service cafes and, at the top of the old reading room, a chichi restaurant.

In the red

At weekends - even in dismal January - it buzzes with life, as visitors pile in to contemplate exactly how to part with their hard-earned cash.

Elgin Marbles
The disputed Elgin Marbles
But even this cannot quite keep the museum's accountants happy. The 250-year-old institution has run up a deficit of 5m.

Some of the blame has been put down to the 11 September effect.

Closing galleries

Visitor numbers have dropped since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, as Americans - who normally make up 17% of visitor numbers - have increasingly forgone Europe holidays.

Gallery closed
Many of the galleries are closed for long stretches
A system of rotating gallery closures has been implemented to keep overheads down.

As if that were not bad enough, the museum is fighting to keep one of its most celebrated exhibits - the Elgin Marbles.

Originally part of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, the 2,500-year-old frieze was brought to Britain in the early 19th Century. A new campaign has been launched to return the marbles to their original home in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

According to Robert Anderson, the director of the British Museum, it's a question of who can best look after the marbles. Greece, he says, has not shown itself able to properly preserve and display those sculptures that remain at the Parthenon.

In any case, he says, his institution is "a museum of the world and its purpose is to display the works of mankind of all periods and of all places".

A big draw

There are fears that bowing to Athens' demands would open the floodgates for dozens of other countries to secure the return of their antiquities.

British Museum shop
Merchandise raises millions for the museum
The museum has already acquiesced to the temporary return to Scotland of the 12th Century, ivory-carved Lewis Chessmen.

The museum has already weathered some big losses, such as the Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels and the original hand-written lyrics of the Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand. These were shifted to St Pancras in 1998 when the old British Library, which used to be attached to the museum, moved to a new location in central London.

Mummies come to mind

So what draws the visitors these days? Simon and Linda Faulkner, down from Northampton for the day, have just spent two hours exploring the institution.

Simon and Linda Faulkner
Simon Faulkner, with wife Linda: "The marbles don't belong here really
They did see the Elgin Marbles, but they weren't what had drawn them in.

"When you say British Museum I immediately think of mummies and ancient Egypt. It's a tough call about the marbles, but they don't belong here really," says Mr Faulkner.

Another visitor, Ena Siddall, says she just popped in to see the Great Court, while American student Sarah Hans shoots a quizzical look on hearing of the "Elgin Marbles".

Serial visitor

"Oh, you mean the Parthenon Marbles," she says, referring to them by their less imperially-charged name.

Sarah Hans
Sarah Hans: "The Elgin what?"
This was her fourth visit in a week, but it's not the marbles that are holding her attention. She has been studying the Statues of the Goddess Sekhmet.

Passers-by are similarly unimpressed by the lure of the controversial exhibit.

"I don't really known what the Elgin Marbles actually are," says Georgina Cadbury. "Last time I went there was some Chinese exhibition, and some coins and things. It was a long time ago."

When Keith Hill last visited, it was to see the Great Court, although he is particularly interested in Roman artefacts.

Antiquities took a back seat the last time David Renhan visited. Again, the big draw for him was the Great Court.

"I have seen the Elgin Marbles, but I think they should go back now," says Mr Renhan.

And he says that while Greece used to be an exotic and far flung country, these days it's just a short, and relatively cheap, plane hop away.

"I'd happily go to Athens to see them in their original context."

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