The Parthenon's Marbles: A never-ending debate

CHECKPOINT FOR ARTS Forums ART Art Debates The Parthenon's Marbles: A never-ending debate

This topic contains 3 replies, has 1 voice, and was last updated by  Niovi Stavropoulou 4 months ago.

Viewing 4 posts - 1 through 4 (of 4 total)
  • Author
  • #897

    Niovi Stavropoulou

    We pretty much all know the story of the so-called “Elgin’s Marbles”, the Marbles of the Parthenon that were been pulled-out from the athenian temple and transferred in England by the scottish Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin in the late 18th century and later sold to the British Museum where they still remain. We also know about the strong disagreement of Modern-day Greece over the ownership of these marbles, the legal and political battles between the Greek Ministry of Culture and the British Museum’s Trustees. Where is this situation going? Who has a saying in all this, the Greek Government, the Museum or the greek and the british people?

    As a greek myself, and a lover of the arts,I can’t say that this issue doesn’t affect me. In order to write this article I’ve done my own research and I dare say that I am now, even more confused than before. But let’s take it step-by-step.

    What are these famous marbles that reside in the British Museum since the 1800s? The Elgin Marbles collection as it is called by the Museum, consists of roughly half of what now survives of the Parthenon : 247 feet of the frieze, 15 metopes and 17 figures from the pediments, among other pieces of architecture. The collection also includes objects from other temples near the Parthenon such as the Erechtheion, where we have the famous Kariatida, the Propylaia and the Temple of Athena Nike.

    But how all of these treasures ended up inside the walls of the British Museum?Around the 18th and the 19th century, it was a common tradition for the european nobles and scholars to travel around Southern Europe in order to study and admire the ancient culture; the roman, greek and egyptian – among others- architecture and sculpture. Painters were also interested in these travels, which led them to create beautiful paintings that later on, influenced the artistic movement called the Neoclassicism. Most of the times, the young nobles that came to the South of Europe had it as a custom to take some “souvenirs” back home. One of them was Thomas Bruce, the young Earl of Elgin in Scotland, who at an early age became a diplomat and later an ambassador on behalf of Queen Victoria.He was sent to Constantinople in 1799 by the British Empire, where he met the Neapolitan painter Luisieri and some of his fellow artists. Together they were dispatched to Athens in the summer of 1800. The British Museum claims that in 1801, Elgin received a firman, a royal mandate from the Ottoman Empire that allowed him and his agents to operate archaeological excavations around the Parthenon in Athens but also, to take away any of the findings. Elgin’s collection was formed not only by operations in Athens but also from others regions of Greece. Till 1812 his collection was complete and Thomas Bruce returned to England with more than eighty antiquities from the Attica region only.In 1816, due to financial instability, Elgin sold his collection to the British Crown and they were displayed in the British Museum were today thousands of tourists come everyday to admire them.

    And what about the greek state? How its evolvement began? The truth is that after Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the newly-found state of the country began a restoration and preservation project of the ancient monuments, sculpture etc, but the “real battle” began around the 1980’s. An important figure of the cause was the actress and later, Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, who dedicate her political action to negotiations and campaigns for the marble’s return. At the time, the British Museums Trustees’ argument was the fact that at the time they were not a suitable placement for them in Athens and their security and preservation was at question. She was the one who held an international competition for the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, designated to display them and finally established in 2008.

    However,The battle doesn’t stop there, because since 2008 the British Museum just refuses to return the marbles to Athens, even though the New Acropolis Museum’s construction and architecture is more than ideal. The placement that is designed for the marbles has a view at the Parthenon it-self.In 2009, the British Museum proposed to lend the marbles to the Acropolis Museum, on the condition that the Greek Government will recognise the British Museum’s ownership over them. The Greeks -obviously- refused.
    The UNESCO’s implication in 2013 didn’t  prove fruitful either and in 2014, the Lebanese-British barrister, Amal Clooney took over the case, supporting the return of the marbles to Athens but in 2015 Greece decided to stop the legal procedures, dismissing her as their brief.

    The position of the British Museum Trustees began to differ the past few years having the most conservative ones like Richard Lambert claiming that the New Acropolis Museum cannot possibly provide the encyclopaedic resources of the British Museum, and therefore no one could study the marbles beyond the surface. Fortunately, other chairs of the British Museum Trustees, cherish the idea of the return of the marbles. An example is Janet Suzman who claims that their return “would lift her spirits and help her to understand their beauty in full”.Fortunately, there are not only the Museum Trustees that have a saying on the subject. Politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party promises the return of the marbles if ever elected Prime Minister. Also, polls that had been conducted to the british people shows that more than 60% of the population support the returning of the marbles to Athens.

    There is also another issue that can possibly affect the future of the artefacts : Brexit. Some say that the marbles cannot be held outside of the EU, thus if the UK detaches itself from the organisation, the marbles have to be returned. In August 2018, Lydia Koniordou, the Greek Minister of Culture sent a letter to Jeremy Wright, UK’s culture secretary, requesting the reopening of the case. If we wanted to play the role of the Devil’s advocate, we would say that the timing couldn’t be more right. Theresa May’s strategy to deliver Brexit will require the consent of all 27 EU members. That means individual rounds of diplomacy with each country. Greece could take the opportunity to probe for a possible quid pro quo, which it hopes will include the Parthenon’s Marbles.

    The return of Parthenon’s Marbles to Athens is a sensible issue from the Greeks, that has been going on for decades now, and in my opinion, won’t be over anytime soon. The British Museum doesn’t want to give up on a treasure that is so popular and brings over that many visitors to the museum.However, this doesn’t mean that the Greek Government must give up on the issue.
    Let’s hope that a solution will be found soon, and that the “Elgin’s Marbles” issue will open more questions about the ownership of more ancient artefacts, originated from all over the world, that are for decades- even centuries- away from their “home”.


    Image sources :
    A. The Guardian
    B. The Guardian
    C. The Culture Trip
    E. The Independent


    Niovi Stavropoulou

    Update on the issue 

    On December 13 2018, The United Nations General Assembly decided the “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” (document A/73/L.54) By its terms, the Assembly calls upon all relevant bodies, agencies, funds and programmes of the United Nations system to continue to address the issue of return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin and to provide appropriate support accordingly.

    “The international community shares a common responsibility to protect cultural property,” said the representative of Greece while introducing the draft resolution. Representatives of States that have seen their cultural property stolen took the floor to urge increased action that would ensure artefacts are returned to countries of origin. This of course, involves directly the Parthenon’s Marbles and had the approval of 105 countries. Noting that the past few decades were characterised by an increase in the illicit trafficking of such artefacts, she warned that conflict in the Middle East is leading to unprecedented destruction, looting and theft.  In that regard, the text highlights the direct link between such illicit trafficking and terrorism.

    This decision is crucial not only for Greece, but of other countries that had suffer from the issue as well.






    Niovi Stavropoulou

    Due to Brexit, the discussions about the returning of the Marbles are once again at the forefront.

    According to Dr. Paul Eleftheriades from Oxford University, if Britain wants extra time in order to decide her eventual exist from Europe, Teresa May has to think about the other members of the EU. He even suggest that if they want Greece’s support, it would be appropriate to grand the representations of the Greek government a place at the British Museum Council and even return the marbles.



    Niovi Stavropoulou

    A new interesting discovery by two Turkish researchers was brought to light last February regarding the existence of a firman – a royal mandate – permitting Lord Elgin to remove the Marbles of the Parthenon. Zeynep Aygen and Orhan Sakin  who are studying the Ottoman texts for years discovered that Lord Elgin never received a firman but a private letter from the kaymakam – the governor – of Istanbul to that of Athens allowing the research and excavation of the area circling the Parthenon. There is no written evidence of allowance of the Marble’s removal.

    According to these texts, Lord Elgin took deliberately the Marbles, without any allowance from the Sultan, as it was stated at the beginning of this never-ending event.

    It is a great discovery, not only for the argument’s sake, but also for the Ottoman written history. Decoding the texts, we learn more about the different procedures and ways of administration to one of the last empires of History.



Viewing 4 posts - 1 through 4 (of 4 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.