Discuss museums and galleries with anybody, and it will usually not be long before talk turns to the Elgin Marbles, all the more since the call for their return to Greece has recently been revived with prominent Hollywood support. So what is the debate actually all about?
The Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Marbles, as they are also known, (let’s simply call them “the Marbles”), are marble sculptures which originally adorned the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens and represent scenes from Athenian cult and mythology. They were brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s and are now housed in the British Museum in London. The dispute about the Marbles has a wider significance insofar as they are representative of many works of art in the world’s museums and private collections that have become the subject of a growing movement for the repatriation of cultural property and typify the debate about the role and place of cultural heritage and the universal museum in the international community.
Many of the events which led to the removal of the Marbles from Greece are now disputed and can no longer clearly be ascertained. While Athens was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Parthenon became a military citadel. In September 1687, an explosion destroyed significant parts of the building although the Marbles themselves remained relatively unscathed. For the next 113 years, the Parthenon site lay unprotected and the Ottoman occupiers as well as locals removed numerous fragments from the site for use as building materials elsewhere, or to fuel a growing international trade in antiquities. In 1800, Lord Elgin arrived to study and document the artworks of the Parthenon, having been given two letters of instruction by the Ottoman authorities. The documents have not withstood the passage of time and it is now disputed what work they precisely authorised Lord Elgin to carry out. In the event, Elgin removed a collection of about half of the then surviving marble sculptures from the Parthenon and shipped them to Britain, much to the dismay of the French, who were at the same time aggressively acquiring artworks to fill the Musée Napoleon (now the Louvre). It has never been established with any degree of certainty whether he hoped to rescue the sculptures for posterity and to avoid their further destruction, or whether he calculated to take advantage of his position as ambassador, and of the corrupt local authorities, to remove the Marbles from Greece for personal gain. The House of Commons then purchased the collection and vested it in the Trustees of the British Museum in perpetuity. The other half of the sculptures remained on the Acropolis and endured more destruction and plunder until the remaining sculptures were finally removed from the Parthenon in 1975 and were more recently moved into the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.
It is easy to see why Greece wants to have the Marbles back and Britain wants to keep them: they are obviously an important part of classical Greek cultural heritage and extremely valuable in any sense of the word. The claim by Greece for their return relies both on legal arguments, in particular, the assertion that Lord Elgin did not have proper authority to remove the Marbles from the Parthenon site, as well as on moral arguments. Indeed, Lord Elgin does not appear to have been authorised to remove sculptures from the Parthenon structure (and to cause considerable damage to the building itself in the process), although such removal was apparently witnessed and described by contemporaneous travelers. Be that as it may, no legal claim for the return of the Marbles has ever been brought by Greece and settling a dispute about events that occurred now over two centuries ago by legal means will be problematic. Even diplomatic requests for their return did not start to be made until the 1980s.
The basis for the moral arguments is that, even if the Marbles had become British property, they remain a key symbol of Greek cultural heritage and national identity. Their display in the British Museum does not put them in their historical context as part of a world-famous monument. They should therefore be returned to Greece and preserved in their totality and in their historic context for the citizens of Greece, as well as for the benefit of the international community.
The United Kingdom has consistently rejected calls for the return of the Marbles to Greece and has taken the position that the Marbles should remain in the British Museum due to their importance and prominence. It is argued that, even if Lord Elgin may not originally have had authority to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon, various subsequent acts of ratification by the Ottoman authorities have since removed any doubts as to the legality of the acquisition. Lord Elgin therefore acquired valid title to the Marbles which he in turn was able to transfer to the British government.
Leaving aside purely legal considerations, many in fact regard Lord Elgin as the rescuer of the Marbles, which may well have suffered destruction or at least significant deterioration, had they not been removed from the Parthenon and from Greece. The United Kingdom also points to the British Museum’s track record in preserving the Marbles and making them accessible to the public and says that an appreciation of their cultural value as part of classical Greek heritage does not require them to be sent back to Greece. Some even go as far as arguing that they have now become part of British cultural heritage.
Whatever the solution, the debate about the return of the Marbles and the wider debate about the merits of repatriation of cultural property is likely to continue for some time to come. In the meantime, the old adage that “possession is nine tenths of the law” will continue to apply and the world at large can rest assured that the Marbles are safely kept in one of the world’s leading museums and continue to inspire public and scholarly interest and an appreciation of classical Greek art at its best.
This article was originally published in Discover Germany and can be found here.
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