The Elgin Marbles
Lord Elgin’s removal to London of the Parthenon sculptures from Athens was controversial in the early 1800s and remains so today. Should the British Museum return them to Greece?
Why are they in the news?
The lawyer Amal Clooney, who recently married the Hollywood actor, George Clooney, has gone back to work. Pursued by photographers of the world’s press she arrived this week in Athens with her colleague, Geoffrey Robertson QC. They are advising the Greek government on their current attempt to recover the Elgin Marbles from Britain. The dispute over the Marbles is the most high-profile of the many contested cultural objects and national treasures in museums around the world.
What are the Elgin Marbles?
They are part of the Parthenon Marbles, a set of sculptures created in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Phidias (and his assistants) as decoration for the Parthenon, the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. The Parthenon is the most important surviving building of classical Greece and its sculptures in their totality are considered one of the period’s greatest masterpieces.
Who was Elgin?
Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was a Scottish diplomat who served as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. Greece at that time was under Ottoman rule and, as a cultured aristocrat with a classical education, Elgin took the opportunity to send artists to Athens to record the antiquities there. In 1801 he obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove parts of the Parthenon.
From 1801 to 1812 his agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures which were brought to Britain. Despite support from British artists, Elgin was unable to interest the government in buying them. By 1816, however, he had fallen into considerable debt and offered the collection again to the government.
A parliamentary committee considered the offer. It was supported by some, while others compared Elgin’s actions to looting. (His fellow Scots aristocrat Lord Byron called him a vandal in his poem ‘Childe Harold’.) Elgin was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. The government paid £35,000 for them (it had cost Elgin £70,000 to acquire them) and placed then on display in the British Museum where they remain.
When did Greece ask for them back?
Greece became an independent state in 1832. There have always been calls for the return of the Marbles, but it was only in 1981 that it became a serious international campaign. That year the Greek actress Melina Mercouri became the Greek Minister of Culture and she made the return of the Marbles a top priority.
What are the main arguments for returning them?
The frieze is a single work of art and all its pieces should be gathered together in one place.
Presenting them all in their original historical and cultural environment in Athens would permit better appreciation and understanding. The New Acropolis Museum to the south of the Acropolis hill was built to hold the sculpture in natural Athenian sunlight, arranged in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon.
The marbles were illegally obtained and should be returned to their rightful owners.
And what are the arguments for keeping them in London?
If the British Museum returned the Marbles to Greece, it could set a precedent that might empty all the great museums of the world as countries demanded their antiquities back — Egyptian mummies and statues, for example.
The Parthenon sculptures are an item of global rather than solely Greek significance. They should remain in a museum which is both free to visit and located in one of world’s most visited cities.
The Marbles were legally obtained. Elgin was granted permission to remove them by what was then the ruling authority.
- Many countries, nations and tribes lay claim to objects and works of art which were often removed in colonial times and now lie in the great museums in the western world. The Benin bronzes in the British Museum, for example, were seized in a British military expedition in 1897. Since its independence in 1960 Nigeria has tried to have them returned.
- The Greek artist lived in Athens in the 5th century BC and is regarded as the greatest sculptor of classical Greece.
- This is an ancient citadel on a rocky high hill overlooking the city of Athens.
- Classical greece
- The classical age lasted 200 years from the 5th century BC until the end of the 4th century BC. Much of modern Western civilization, including architecture, political and scientific thought, literature and philosophy begins in this period.
- The Ottoman Empire began in 1299 in what is now north-western modern Turkey. The great triumph of its military success was the capture of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1453. At its height in the 17th century it ruled much of south-eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.