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16 November 2021

Where do the Elgin marbles belong: Britain or Greece?

The Greek prime minister says the Elgin marbles “were stolen”. The British Museum remains defiant.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Today (16 November), the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Boris Johnson in London. Mitsotakis was due to make the Elgin marbles, also known as the Parthenon marbles, a key issue in their talk. The marbles are housed in the British Museum, but the Greek government wants them returned – or repatriated. The Elgin marbles are among many international objects held in the British Museum the possession of which is contested.

“Our position is very clear,” Mitsotakis said. “The marbles were stolen in the 19th century. They belong in the Acropolis Museum and we need to discuss this issue in earnest.” 

Earlier this year, Johnson said: “The UK government has a firm, longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.” Ahead of Johnson’s meeting with the Greek PM, a spokesperson for No 10 said “the possession of the marbles is a matter purely for the museum. It’s not one for the UK government.”

What are the Elgin marbles?

The Elgin marbles are a collection of classical Greek sculptures. They were made between 447 and 432 BC under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias, and were originally part of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the ancient citadel in Athens. The marbles consist of a frieze showing a procession celebrating the goddess Athena, a series of relief panels depicting a battle at the marriage feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia, and figures of Greek gods and heroes. 

Why does the UK have the Elgin marbles?

From the mid-15th century until the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Athens was governed by the Ottoman Empire. In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, was the British ambassador to the empire. He successfully petitioned the authorities for a decree (or firman) to remove the figures, and between 1801 and 1805 a team working for him extracted about half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon, which was already in ruins – largely due to an explosion in 1687, when it was used as an ammunition store. They also extracted elements from other buildings on the Acropolis. The firman that Elgin is said to have obtained has never been found in the Ottoman archives.

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Elgin’s collection was then transported to Britain by sea. His actions were investigated by a parliamentary select committee in 1816 and were found to be legal. The marbles passed into the trusteeship of the British Museum by an act of parliament. Today, the museum houses approximately half of the surviving marbles, including 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and 75 metres of the original frieze. The other half is housed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where replicas of the parts still in London (made from casts taken by Elgin) are also kept. 

Why should the Elgin marbles stay in the British Museum?

Dominic Selwood, a historian, barrister and the author of Anatomy of a Nation: A History of British Identity in 50 Documents, believes that the British Museum, which welcomes six million annual visitors free of charge, is the best place for the marbles to be displayed. “Greece has always benefited from Britain’s holding of the marbles, because the Ottoman Turks were destroying them in 1801 when Elgin turned up,” he told the New Statesman. “They were using them for target practice, hacking bits off. Elgin saved half the statues that remained. If he’d left them all, they’d be wrecked. If you look at the quality of the ones in the Acropolis Museum, they’re blurry, they’ve lost all definition.”

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A spokesperson for the British Museum told the New Statesman: “The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered. The Trustees firmly believe that there’s a positive advantage and public benefit in having the sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.”

Selwood said that many people who are in favour of repatriation “believe that it’s a liberal, benign, kind, worthy” thing to do. He disagrees. “I think it’s cultural nationalism. I don’t think it’s a healthy emotion to try and brand culture as belonging to a country. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying: ‘They’re Greek, they belong in Greece; anything else is colonialist.’ There is a liberal argument about world heritage and not nationalising culture.” 

Why should the Elgin marbles be returned to Greece?

Alice Procter, a writer and leader of “Uncomfortable Art Tours”, believes that the sculptures should be returned to Greece. Seeing an object in its original context, she told the New Statesman, is “always transformative. I feel that putting the statues in the Acropolis Museum in Athens would alter our engagement with and understanding of them.” 

Procter said that it remains unclear whether Elgin acquired the marbles legally in the first place. But more important is the question of “how the British government continues to justify holding on to these sculptures”. The argument that the marbles are best cared for in the British Museum has been “proven wrong again and again”, she said. The Duveen Galleries, where the sculptures are exhibited, have been closed for almost a year, restricting the public from viewing them – that the reason for this closure is a leaky roof also begs the question of whether the sculptures have been affected by the water damage, she said. 

If the Elgin marbles are returned to Greece, what does this mean for other artefacts in the British Museum?

The Elgin marbles “are not a one-off”, Selwood said, “there are other objects in museums around the world that belong to other countries.” 

In debating restitution, he considered the role of museums. “I very passionately believe in museums and their value. They started in the 18th century as these enlightenment institutions, and the idea was to bring tolerance and harmony by educating people about other cultures,” he said. If we agree to restitution, he asked, “Are we just going to get rid of museums? I worry that it would be the destruction of museums, which I think are a very positive force.”

Procter said she thinks the British Museum and the British government are “deeply afraid” of the Elgin marbles “setting a precedent” – that if they are returned to Greece, other such items will follow. “That’s a very anxious way of approaching history. It’s a perspective that means that you don’t take into consideration the specificities of each of these objects, because you’re so afraid of what one thing might mean. It creates a climate of paranoia around repatriation that is really damaging to the museum sector as a whole. I find that deeply frustrating and I think it’s a very narrow-minded way to approach history and curation.”

The repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures does not necessarily lead to the repatriation of another object, said Procter, but “because of this fear of a slippery slope, museums like the British Museum have refused to repatriate items that have a very clear claim on them. We’ve seen continually that the British Museum refuses to repatriate objects because of this fear that it might lead to them losing the Parthenon sculptures: it goes both ways.” Procter noted that such items that do have a clearer argument for repatriation include Maori human remains and Ethiopian tabots.

[See also: Can we decolonise the British Museum?]

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