The Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures

The Elgin Marbles
(George Rose/Getty Images)

The Elgin Marbles are a source of controversy between modern Britain and Greece, being a collection of stone pieces rescued/removed from the ruins of the Ancient Greek Parthenon in the nineteenth century, and now in demand to be sent back from their home in the British Museum. In many ways, the Marbles, are emblematic of the development of modern ideas of national heritage and global display, which argues that localized regions have the best claims over items produced there.

Do the citizens of a modern region have any claim over items produced in that region by people thousands of years ago? Is there that level of continuity? There are no easy answers, but many controversial ones.

The Elgin Marbles

At its broadest, the term ‘Elgin Marbles’ refers to a collection of stone sculptures and architectural pieces which Thomas Bruce, Seventh Lord Elgin, gathered during his service as ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul. In practice, the term is commonly used to refer to the stone objects he gathered—an official Greek website prefers “looted”—from Athens between 1801–05, particularly those from the Parthenon; these included 247 feet of frieze. We believe that Elgin took around half of what was surviving at the Parthenon at that time. The Parthenon items are increasingly, and officially, called the Parthenon Sculptures.

In Britain

Elgin was heavily interested in Greek history and claimed he had the permission of the Ottomans, the people ruling Athens during his service, to gather his collection.

After acquiring the marbles, he transported them to Britain, although one shipment sank during transit; it was fully recovered. In 1816, Elgin sold the stones for £35,000, half his estimated costs, and they were acquired by the British Museum in London, but only after a Parliamentary Select Committee—a very high-level body of inquiry—debated the legality of Elgin’s ownership.

Elgin had been attacked by campaigners (then as now) for “vandalism,” but Elgin argued the sculptures would be better cared for in Britain, and cited his permissions, documentation which campaigners for the return of the Marbles often now believe supports their claims. The Committee allowed the Elgin Marbles to stay in Britain. They are now displayed by the British Museum.

The Parthenon Diaspora

The Parthenon, and its sculptures/marbles, have a history which stretches back 2500 years, when it was built to honor a goddess called Athena. It has been a Christian church and a Muslim mosque, but has been ruined since 1687, when gunpowder stored inside exploded and attackers bombarded the structure. Over the centuries, the stones which both constituted and adorned the Parthenon had been damaged, especially during the explosion, and many have been removed from Greece. As of 2009, the surviving Parthenon sculptures are divided among museums in eight nations, including The British Museum, the Louvre, the Vatican collection, and a new, purpose-built museum in Athens. The majority of the Parthenon Sculptures are split evenly between London and Athens.

Greece

Pressure for the return of the Marbles to Greece has been growing, and since the 1980s the Greek Government has officially asked for them to be permanently repatriated.

They argue that the Marbles are a prime piece of Greek heritage and were removed with the permission of what was effectively a foreign government, as Greek independence only occurred a few years after Elgin was collecting. They also argue that the British Museum has no legal right to the sculptures. Arguments that Greece had nowhere to adequately display the Marbles, because they can’t be satisfactorily replaced in Parthenon itself, have been made null and void by the creation of a new £115 million Acropolis Museum with a floor recreating the Parthenon. In addition, massive works to restore and stabilize the Parthenon and the Acropolis have been, and are being, carried out.

The British Museum’s Response

The British Museum has basically said 'no' to the Greeks. Their official position, as given on their website in 2009, is:

“The British Museum’s Trustees argue that the Parthenon Sculptures are integral to the Museum’s purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement. Here Greece’s cultural links with the other great civilizations of the ancient world, especially Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Rome, can be clearly seen, and the vital contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements in Europe, Asia, and Africa can be followed and understood. The current division of the surviving sculptures between museums in eight countries, with about equal quantities present in Athens and London, allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focusing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture. This, the Museum’s Trustees believe, is an arrangement that gives maximum public benefit for the world at large and affirms the universal nature of the Greek legacy.”

The British Museum has also claimed they have a right to keep the Elgin Marbles because they effectively saved them from further damage. Ian Jenkins was quoted by the BBC, while associated with the British Museum, as saying “If Lord Elgin did not act as he did, the sculptures would not survive as they do. And the proof of that as a fact is merely to look at the things that were left behind in Athens.” Yet the British Museum has also admitted that the sculptures were damaged by “heavy handed” cleaning, although the precise level of damage is disputed by campaigners in Britain and Greece.

Pressure continues to build, and as we live in a celebrity-driven world, some have weighed in. George Clooney and his wife are the most high profile celebrities to call for the marbles to be sent to Greece, and his comments received what is, perhaps, best described as a mixed reaction in Europe. The marbles are far from the only item in a museum which another country would like back, but they are among the best known, and many people resistant to their transfer fear the complete dissolution of the western museum world should the floodgates be open.

In 2015, the Greek government declined to take legal action over the marbles, interpreted as a sign that there is no legal right behind Greek demands.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures." ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-elgin-marbles-parthenon-sculptures-1221618. Wilde, Robert. (2017, July 6). The Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-elgin-marbles-parthenon-sculptures-1221618 Wilde, Robert. "The Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-elgin-marbles-parthenon-sculptures-1221618 (accessed November 18, 2017).