The Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles

 ‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see                                                                             Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed                                                     By British hands, which it had best behoved                                                                      To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.                                                                      Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,                                                        And once again thy hapless bosom gored,                                                                        And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!’

Lord Byron

At the Acropolis are the Parthenon buildings where the famous marbles used to be before Lord Elgin removed them on behalf of himself and the British Empire two hundred years ago when he simply hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and saws and sent them back to the England.  Looking at the damage he did in removing them he might just as well have used dynamite!  Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who ruled Greece at that time and the Turks gave permission for the removal without consulting the subjugated Greeks.

Well, not surprisingly, now the Turkish invaders have gone (in 1821 actually), the Greek Government would rather like them back, and that seems to be a perfectly reasonable request; but the British in their retained imperial arrogance claim that the Greeks cannot possibly be trusted to look after such important antiquities and insist on keeping them in London.   Actually as it turns out we haven’t looked after them that well ourselves and they have been irreparably damaged, first when they were sawn into smaller pieces to facilitate transportation and secondly when British Museum cleaning staff used inappropriate cleaning methods in the 1930’s which seriously discoloured the marble.

To be fair it isn’t just the British Museum that has dubious ownership of important bits of Greek heritage and there are smaller plundered pieces at the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museum in Rome as well as other locations across Europe.

What we have to be careful of however is not applying modern political boundaries to the ancient world. The classical Cambridge Scholar, Professor M I Finley points out that “…Neither then, or at any time in the Ancient World was there a nation, a single national territory under one sovereign rule, called Greece (or any synonym for Greece)”.  If we accept this then it begins to construct a counter argument against the modern Greek claims. Even if they belong in Athens they have no relevance to modern Greece.

The travel writer Lawrence Durrell considers this argument and although seemingly accepting it comes to the conclusion: “Myself, I think I should have given them back and keep copies in plaster for the British Museum.  For us they are a mere possession of great historic interest.  For the Greeks they are a symbol, inexplicably bound up with the national struggle as an image of themselves as descendants of foreign tribes”.

Anyway the Greeks have a cunning plan and they have built a state of the art museum with advanced environmental climate control to house the marbles that is far technologically superior to anything in London, Paris or Rome and they are now even more insistent that they should be returned.  Until they are they propose to keep empty a specially prepared room in the hope that this will shame the British into putting the plundered treasures back into their packing cases and returning them forthwith.

Good luck to the Greeks I say!  They should be sent back immediately, they belong in Athens and the Acropolis Museum and if you ask me they should be restored immediately to the temples that were built for them and in a poll carried out in 2002 fifty six percent of British people polled agreed with me.

As a result of the economic crisis there is however another side to this because there is a question mark over whether Greece can afford the Marbles or guarantee their safety.  According to the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, Greek archaeologists have revealed that funding for the country’s archaeological service fell by 35 percent to 12 million euros ($15.7 million)in 2011, and will be further reduced in 2012.  One out of ten Culture Ministry employees has been dismissed, and untrained temporary staff brought in to allow museums, sites and excavations to operate.

Greece’s financial difficulties and staff shortages did not take long to attract unwanted attention. In January 2012, a unique Picasso and two other artworks were stolen from the Athens National Gallery during a staff strike and a month later, two armed men stole over 70 objects from a museum in ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.  The National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Museum of Byzantine art in Thessaloniki routinely shut down entire halls because of shortage of guards.

For the time being at least the Acropolis Museum continues to receive adequate funding but there are fears that it too could be ultimately affected.  If therefore the squabbling museum authorities cannot resolve the issue just yet then I propose that we leave the final word to John Keats (misquoted I agree but still appropriate):

When old age shall this generation waste,                                                                        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe                                                                        Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,                                                    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all                                                                          Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens – an account of my visit to the new Museum in 2009.


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3 responses to “The Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles

  1. Mixed views here. Not everyone gets chance to travel and if you send everything back to where it came from, people would only get chance to see local artefacts in their own country.

    And I love the BM. One of, if not the best, museums I have ever visited. You can go through so many rooms, civilisations and centuries. And the Elgin marbles are pretty spectacular I think.

    So yeah, in theory, it would be nice for us to hand everything back to everywhere and have an empty BM, but in practice, my vote would go with retaining some imperialistic arrogance with the marbles.

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