Row heats up over the Parthenon Marbles
Hollywood actors George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon have become embroiled in one of the fiercest of all heritage controversies: should the Parthenon marbles be returned by the British Museum to Greece?
The actors were in London to promote their latest film, The Monuments Men, which was inspired by the true story of a team of soldiers on a mission to rescue valuable artwork stolen by the Nazis during the invasion of Europe. But they left implying that Britain too, needed to have a long, hard, look at itself.
Murray said: "It seems like it's a problem all over the world. Who owns this art? Where it came from? Do they have the right to give it back? I think it has had a very nice stay here, certainly. London's gotten crowded, there's plenty of room back there in Greece, plenty of room. England can take a lead on this kind of thing … letting art go back where it came from.”
Clooney also stated that Athens had a “very good case” to reclaim the 2500-year-old sculptures which were taken from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by the Earl of Elgin.
London Mayor Boris Johnson was quick to hit back in defence of Britain, claiming that Clooney was "advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London's cultural treasures".
The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, was built in 15 years between 447 to 432 BC, coordinated by the great Athenian statesman, Pericles, who began a huge program of building works to give Athens the magnificence of a great imperial city. In those few years, Greek literature, philosophy, architecture, and politics suddenly burst into flower.
In 1799, Lord Elgin was appointed British Ambassador to Constantinople. In receipt of a letter from the Sultan, he obtained permission to draw the Parthenon sculptures and produce replicas in plaster. Instead, Lord Elgin's team, after bribing the Turkish officer in charge of the Acropolis, proceeded to dismantle the building and the remove its prized sculptures. He then sold them to the British Government for £35,000.
Between 1930 and 1940, the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were cleaned with wire brush and acid, causing permanent destruction 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 Greek government and many historians demand they should be handed back because they claim the Earl committed ‘cultural vandalism’ and took them without proper authority. Indeed, the return of ‘Elgin’s loot’ is the single biggest priority on the arts agenda of the tourist-reliant country.
Culture Minister for Greece, Panos Panagiotopoulos, was quick to respond to the Hollywood actors’ support. He penned a two-page letter saying: "As you said, returning these pillaged masterpieces to where they belong on the Parthenon would be both fair and nice … not only because they belong to the history of Greek civilisation, but precisely because through our history they illuminate world civilisation."
There was, he continued, only one decision that could right the wrong. "The decision to return the marbles to the place where they were chiselled, next to those sculptures from which they were so illegally and violently ripped apart."
Greece has argued that its New Acropolis Museum is the perfect place to hold the marbles. In the new Museum, the Parthenon itself is visible through the windows of the room in which the marbles would be displayed together with the fragments that remained in Athens. At present, the Parthenon Gallery in the Acropolis Museum contains a combination of original marbles and cast copies of the pieces held in the British Museum, and observing the display one can’t help but feel that the marbles are not where they should be.
The Parthenon Gallery in the Acropolis Museum, Greece, which contains cast copies of the marbles.
However, the British Museum and those who want the marbles to remain argue they are part of human history and are preserved as well as viewed for free in the UK, which ‘legally bought’ them over 200 years ago. They have also said that returning the marbles would set a precedent which would suggest that cultural artefacts should, as a rule, be sent to the modern nation state occupying the land on which they were built or found.
It is unlikely that the British Museum will respond to Clooney’s call to return the marbles, but it might just add to the growing pressure that the Museum is under to give back one of Greece’s most prized possessions.
Featured image: A section of the Parthenon frieze. Photo credit .