The Parthenon Marbles Debate
Should the marbles be returned to their rightful home in Greece, or should they remain at the British Museum?
In March 2021, prime minister Boris Johnson stated that the Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) would remain at the British Museum, despite Greece protesting that the marbles should be returned to their rightful place in Athens.
The Parthenon marble sculptures were designed and built between 447BC and 432BC, under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and originally formed part of the temple of Athena (the Parthenon). The marbles consist of: a frieze, metopes and figures.
Between 1801 and 1805, whilst serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed many of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon. Elgin claimed that he had legal documentation (firman) issued to him by the Ottoman Empire, who ruled Greece at the time.
Elgin was a keen collector of classical arts, and due to the ongoing conflict between the Greeks and the Turks, he is claimed to have removed the marbles in order to save them from possible destruction. The Parthenon had already fallen into ruin when Elgin removed the marbles, about 40% of the marbles had already been lost or damaged, first by early Christians, and then when the building was used as a mosque. In around 1687 the building was used as an ammunition store by the Ottoman Turks when an explosion caused further damage.
Elgin transported the marbles to England, where he held the marbles in his private collection. In 1816, the marbles were purchased by Parliament for £35,000, much less than what Elgin had paid for them. Elgin was strapped for cash due to a divorce from his wealthy wife, as well as struggling to pay off debtors from the acquisition of the marbles. The marbles were handed to the British Museum, where they can be seen today in Rooms 18a and 18b.
The debate over the marbles has been going on for decades, and there are strong arguments for their repatriation as well as for them to remain in Great Britain.
One argument is that, if Elgin had not removed the marbles, they may have faced further damage or even theft. However, Greece has long argued that the Ottoman Empire had no right to make a deal with Elgin as they were occupying the country. Therefore, the Ottoman Empire held no ownership over the ancient Greek objects, meaning any deals were void. Despite Elgin claiming to have an official document, it has never been located.
Today, the Parthenon is a roofless ruin. The remainder of the marbles have been removed for their protection.
One of the historical arguments posed by the British Museum was that Greece did not have a sufficient place for the marbles to be housed. Therefore, it would be better for them to be left in the British Museum, which is light and temperature controlled. However, Greece has since built the Acropolis Museum, which displays other sections of the Parthenon marbles, along with plaster copies of the ones held at the British Museum. The marbles are aligned in sight of the Parthenon, with a space for the Elgin Marbles, should they return.
Other fragments from the Parthenon can be found in museums all over the world; including Paris, Munich and Vienna. The marbles are one of the British Museum's most popular objects and are considered amongst one of the greatest masterpieces of the classical world.
I would be interested to hear what people think about the marbles debate. Do you think they should be returned to their rightful place in Athens, or should they remain at the British Museum?