Here, we will be visiting Ancient Greece to explore the age-old debate of the Elgin Marbles, which refers to multiple Classical Greek marble sculptures and architectural features taken from the Parthenon and Acropolis and now on display at the British Museum.
Dating back to 447-438 BCE, these marbles have been the subject of a loaded history and controversy. Thomas Buce, 7th Earl of Elgin, had visited Athens and had the pieces removed for his personal collection from 1801 to 1812 while Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. He later sold them to the British government in 1816, and the marbles were then put on display in the British Museum. Since gaining independence in 1832, Greece has expressed its disapproval in the removal of the marbles and has repeatedly asked for their return.
A Closer Look at the Elgin Marbles
Lord Elgin bequeathed 119 marbles to the British museum. These marbles consist of dozens of statues, metope panels, and several meters of the frieze from the Parthenon alone. The Elgin marbles, also referred to as the Parthenon marbles, also include fragments from the Acropolis. The Duveen Gallery was designed with the intent of displaying the Elgin Marbles.
What’s the Debate?
While visiting Athens when it was under Ottoman rule, Elgin claimed to have obtained legal permission, a document known as a firman, from the Ottoman government to take the marbles in 1801. Since then, the firman has been lost. All that remains is an Italian translation of the document. The Greek government has compared this acquisition to looting while the British government argues that Parliament purchased the marbles from Elgin legally.
The Argument for Returning the Marbles
Many have advocated for the reunion of all the pieces so that the Parthenon and Acropolis can be fully appreciated. And architectural features like the frieze can be appreciated as intended, in one piece. Proponents also maintain that the removal of the marbles was ultimately illegal and should be returned to their rightful place.
The Argument for the Marble to Remain
The marbles have been in the museum since the early nineteenth-century, and the Museum claims their own cultural ties to the marbles. It also argues that the marble would not receive the requisite quality care should they be returned to the Acropolis, as much of the stonework in Athens has been damaged by air pollution and acid rain. In addition, opposers argue that the return of the marbles would set a precedent for art restitution all over the world.
The Power of Public Opinion
Opening in 2009, the Acropolis Museum displays and cares for fragments of the Acropolis and Greek antiquity in Athens. International organizations, such as UNESCO, activists, lawyers, and art historians support the return of the marbles. Hollywood actors George Clooney and Matt Damon have publicly voiced their support to reunite the marbles with the Acropolis.
Conclusively, this debate may never be completely settled, but it begs the question of cultural ownership and restitution. Does Greek art only belong to Greece? In recent years, governments and cultural institutions are forced to confront issues such as looting, critical race theory, and repatriation. Maybe the real question is what can we learn from the history of these marbles?