Controversy Reignites as British MPs Propose Finally Returning Ancient Parthenon Marbles to Greece
When the British Empire ruled much of the world, many artifacts and artworks, including reliefs and statues from the Parthenon in Athens known as the Elgin Marbles, were taken to Britain. For years Greece has been trying to get those sculptures back, saying they are an important part of the country’s heritage. Could there be a glimmer of hope that the marbles will return to their homeland?
A group of British members of Parliament from several political parties has proposed returning the statues to Greece. The move came on July 11, the 200 th anniversary of the British government’s paying the Greek government for them.
Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, had taken them some years earlier when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. He said he got permission from the Ottomans to take the artworks.
Detail from the Parthenon Marbles (Chris Devers / Flickr)
Today, the Parthenon sculptures remain some of the most controversial objects in the British Museum, with some arguing for the repatriation of the artifacts to Greece, and others arguing that the sculptures ought to remain in London. Similarly, opinion is divided regarding Lord Elgin. For some he was the savior of the endangered Parthenon sculptures, while to others he was a looter and pillager of Greek antiquities.
Between 1930 and 1940, the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were cleaned with wire brush and acid, causing permanent damage of their ancient surface. In 1983, Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture for Greece, requested the return of the sculptures, and the debate over their return has raged ever since.
The controversy around the Parthenon marbles is just one among many concerning artifacts the British took—some say stole—during their years of conquest.
A story from the Guardian in November 2015 states: “For anyone with a liberal bone in their body, a walk around the British Museum is an uncomfortable experience. The Parthenon marbles and the Rosetta stone are only the best known examples of wonders gained by plunder. The Chinese government claims the museum holds 23,000 artefacts looted in the 19th century from Beijing alone.”
The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum, London (public domain)
The article says the only contested object Britain has returned is the Stone of Scone to Scotland, which did not require a change of governmental ownership. The article cautions against beginning to repatriate artifacts because it might start an international movement, and, the author says, sometimes objects are better cared for in the world’s major museums.
The Parthenon marbles date back some 2,500 years. The Parthenon was one of ancient Greece's most important temples, dedicated to the city’s patroness, the goddess Athena. Over the millennia, the structure was converted into a Christian church by the Byzantines, and subsequently into a mosque by the Turks. The Turks also used the Parthenon as a gunpowder storage magazine, which blew up during the Venetian siege of the city in 1687.
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, from where the marble friezes were taken (public domain)
The British Museum, in a statement defending its ownership of the Parthenon marbles, says 65 percent of the sculptures survived the various assaults on the temple over the years. The majority are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens and in the British Museum in London, about 30 percent in each place. The remaining 40 percent are in other museums in Europe, including the Vatican, the Louvre and museums in Copenhagen, Vienna, Würzburg and Munich. The stunning new Acropolis Museum had been purpose-built to house the Parthenon marbles, but now visitors see mostly plaster casts.
The Parthenon Marbles, most of them plaster casts as the originals are in London, on display in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Flickr)
The British Museum’s statement says: “The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered.”
The official stance of the Greek government, as expressed by Hellenic Republic President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in October 2015, is that the marbles only proper place is in Greece.
A group of 12 MPs, including Mark Williams, agrees. He told the Independent:
“These magnificent artefacts were improperly dragged and sawn off the remains of the Parthenon. This Bill proposes that the Parliament should annul what it did 200 years ago. In 1816 Parliament effectively state-sanctioned the improper acquisition of these impressive and important sculptures from Greece. It’s time we engaged in a gracious act. To put right a 200-year wrong.”
Polls have found that British people who are aware of the controversy overwhelmingly agree: The marbles should go back to Greece.
Top image: A section of the Parthenon marbles (public domain)
By Mark Miller