Elgin Marbles

The Parthenon Marbles (Greek: Γλυπτά του Παρθενώνα) also known as the Elgin Marbles (/ˈɛlɡɪn/),[1] are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants. They were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens.[2][3]

Parthenon Marbles
Elgin Marbles
Yearc. 447–438 BCE
Dimensions75 m (246 ft)
LocationBritish Museum, London

From 1801 to 1812, agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.[4] The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. Elgin later claimed to have obtained in 1801 an official decree (a firman)[5] from the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire which were then the rulers of Greece. This firman has not been found in the Ottoman archives despite its wealth of documents from the same period[6] and its veracity is disputed.[7] The half not removed by Elgin is now displayed in the Acropolis Museum, aligned in orientation and within sight of the Parthenon, with the position of the missing elements clearly marked and space left should they be returned to Athens.[8]

In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some,[9] while some others, such as Lord Byron, likened the Earl's actions to vandalism or looting.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16] Following a public debate in Parliament[17] and its subsequent exoneration of Elgin, he sold the Marbles to the British government in 1816. They were then passed to the British Museum,[18] where they are now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the newly-founded Greek state began a series of projects to restore its monuments and retrieve looted art. It has expressed its disapproval of Elgin's removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon,[19] which is regarded as one of the world's greatest cultural monuments.[20] International efforts to repatriate the Marbles to Greece were intensified in the 1980s by then Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, and there are now many organisations actively campaigning for the Marbles' return, several united as part of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. The Greek government itself continues to urge the return of the marbles to Athens so as to be unified with the remaining marbles and for the complete Parthenon frieze sequence to be restored, through diplomatic, political and legal means.[21]

In 2014, UNESCO offered to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom to resolve the dispute, although this was later turned down by the British Museum on the basis that UNESCO works with government bodies, not trustees of museums.[22][23][24]


Built in the ancient era, the Parthenon was extensively damaged during the Great Turkish War (1683–1699) against the Republic of Venice. The defending Turks fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On 26 September 1687, a Venetian artillery round, fired from the Hill of Philopappus, blew up the magazine, and the building was partly destroyed.[25] The explosion blew out the building's central portion and caused the cella's walls to crumble into rubble.[26] Three of the four walls collapsed, or nearly so, and about three-fifths of the sculptures from the frieze fell.[27] About three hundred people were killed in the explosion, which showered marble fragments over a significant area.[28] For the next century and a half, portions of the remaining structure were scavenged for building material and looted of any remaining objects of value.[29]


In November 1798 the Earl of Elgin was appointed as "Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey" (Greece was then part of the Ottoman Empire). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, "the answer of the Government ... was entirely negative."[9]

Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work himself, and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter, Giovani Lusieri.[9] According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were being burned to obtain lime for building.[9] Although his original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures[30] under the supervision of Lusieri. Pieces were also removed from the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike, all inside the Acropolis.

The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost to Elgin of around £70,000.[31] Elgin intended to use the marbles to decorate Broomhall House, his private home near Dunfermline in Scotland,[32] but a costly divorce suit forced him to sell them to settle his debts.[33] Elgin sold the Parthenon Marbles to the British government for less than it cost him to procure them, declining higher offers from other potential buyers, including Napoleon.[30]


The Parthenon Marbles acquired by Elgin include some 21 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, 15 of an original 92 metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 75 meters of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon.

Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athene Nike, and the Treasury of Atreus.

Legality of the removal from Athens

The Acropolis was at that time an Ottoman military fort, so Elgin required special permission to enter the site, the Parthenon, and the surrounding buildings. He stated that he had obtained a firman from the Sultan which allowed his artists to access the site, but he was unable to produce the original documentation. However, Elgin presented a document claimed to be an English translation of an Italian copy made at the time. This document is now kept in the British Museum.[34] Its authenticity has been questioned, as it lacked the formalities characterising edicts from the sultan. Vassilis Demetriades, Professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Crete, has argued that "any expert in Ottoman diplomatic language can easily ascertain that the original of the document which has survived was not a firman".[7] The document was recorded in an appendix of an 1816 parliamentary committee report. 'The committee permission' had convened to examine a request by Elgin asking the British government to purchase the Marbles. The report said that the document[35] in the appendix was an accurate translation, in English, of an Ottoman firman dated July 1801. In Elgin's view it amounted to an Ottoman authorisation to remove the marbles. The committee was told that the original document was given to Ottoman officials in Athens in 1801. Researchers have so far failed to locate it despite the fact that firmans, being official decrees by the Sultan, were meticulously recorded as a matter of procedure, and that the Ottoman archives in Istanbul still hold a number of similar documents dating from the same period.[6]

The parliamentary record shows that the Italian copy of the firman was not presented to the committee by Elgin himself but by one of his associates, the clergyman Rev. Philip Hunt. Hunt, who at the time resided in Bedford, was the last witness to appear before the committee and stated that he had in his possession an Italian translation of the Ottoman original. He went on to explain that he had not brought the document, because, upon leaving Bedford, he was not aware that he was to testify as a witness. The English document in the parliamentary report was filed by Hunt, but the committee was not presented with the Italian translation in Hunt's possession. William St. Clair, a contemporary biographer of Lord Elgin, said he possessed Hunt's Italian document and "vouches for the accuracy of the English translation". The committee report states on page 69 "(Signed with a signet.) Seged Abdullah Kaimacan" - however, the document presented to the committee was "an English translation of this purported translation into Italian of the original firman",[36] and had neither signet nor signature on it, a fact corroborated by St. Clair.[37] The 1967 study by British historian William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, stated the sultan did not allow the removal of statues and reliefs from the Parthenon. The study judged a clause authorizing the British to take stones “with old inscriptions and figures” probably meant items in the excavations the site, not the art decorating the temples.[38]

The document allowed Elgin and his team to erect scaffolding so as to make drawings and mouldings in chalk or gypsum, as well as to measure the remains of the ruined buildings and excavate the foundations which may have become covered in the [ghiaja (meaning gravel, debris)]; and "...that when they wish to take away [qualche (meaning 'some' or 'a few')] pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto". The interpretation of these lines has been questioned even by non-restitutionalists,[39][40] particularly the word qualche, which in modern language should be translated as a few but can also mean any. According to non-restitutionalists, further evidence that the removal of the sculptures by Elgin was approved by the Ottoman authorities is shown by a second firman which was required for the shipping of the marbles from Piraeus.[41]

Many have questioned the legality of Elgin's actions, including the legitimacy of the documentation purportedly authorising them. A study by Professor David Rudenstine of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law concluded that the premise that Elgin obtained legal title to the marbles, which he then transferred to the British government, "is certainly not established and may well be false".[42] Rudenstine's argumentation is partly based on a translation discrepancy he noticed between the surviving Italian document and the English text submitted by Hunt to the parliamentary committee. The text from the committee report reads "We therefore have written this Letter to you, and expedited it by Mr. Philip Hunt, an English Gentleman, Secretary of the aforesaid Ambassador" but according to the St. Clair Italian document the actual wording is "We therefore have written this letter to you and expedited it by N.N.". In Rudenstine's view, this substitution of "Mr. Philip Hunt" with the initials "N.N." can hardly be a simple mistake. He further argues that the document was presented after the committee's insistence that some form of Ottoman written authorisation for the removal of the marbles be provided, a fact known to Hunt by the time he testified. Thus, according to Rudenstine, "Hunt put himself in a position in which he could simultaneously vouch for the authenticity of the document and explain why he alone had a copy of it fifteen years after he surrendered the original to Ottoman officials in Athens". On two earlier occasions, Elgin stated that the Ottomans gave him written permissions more than once, but that he had "retained none of them." Hunt testified on March 13, and one of the questions asked was "Did you ever see any of the written permissions which were granted [to Lord Elgin] for removing the Marbles from the Temple of Minerva?" to which Hunt answered "yes", adding that he possessed an Italian translation of the original firman. Nonetheless, he did not explain why he had retained the translation for 15 years, whereas Elgin, who had testified two weeks earlier, knew nothing about the existence of any such document.[37]

English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, an eyewitness, wrote that the Dizdar, the Ottoman fortress commander on the scene, attempted to stop the removal of the metopes but was bribed to allow it to continue.[43] In contrast, John Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and also Professor of Art at Stanford University, putting aside the discrepancy presented by Rudenstine, argues that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognisable. Sultan Selim III was grateful to the British for repelling Napoleonic expansion, and unlike his ancestor Mehmet II, the Parthenon marbles had no sentimental value to him.[30] Further, that written permission exists in the form of the firman, which is the most formal kind of permission available from that government, and that Elgin had further permission to export the marbles, legalises his (and therefore the British Museum's) claim to the Marbles.[41] He does note, though, that the clause concerning the extent of Ottoman authorisation to remove the marbles "is at best ambiguous", adding that the document "provides slender authority for the massive removals from the Parthenon ... The reference to 'taking away any pieces of stone' seems incidental, intended to apply to objects found while excavating. That was certainly the interpretation privately placed on the firman by several of the Elgin party, including Lady Elgin. Publicly, however, a different attitude was taken, and the work of dismantling the sculptures on the Parthenon and packing them for shipment to England began in earnest. In the process, Elgin's party damaged the structure, leaving the Parthenon not only denuded of its sculptures but further ruined by the process of removal. It is certainly arguable that Elgin exceeded the authority granted in the firman in both respects".[44]

The issue of firmans of this nature, along with universally required bribes, was not unusual at this time: In 1801 for example, Edward Clarke and his assistant Cripps, obtained an authorisation from the governor of Athens for the removal of a statue of the goddess Demeter which was at Eleusis, with the intervention of Italian artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri who was Lord Elgin's assistant at the time.[45] Prior to Clarke, the statue had been discovered in 1676 by the traveller George Wheler, and since then several ambassadors had submitted unsuccessful applications for its removal,[46][47] but Clarke had been the one to remove the statue by force,[48] after bribing the waiwode of Athens and obtaining a firman,[46] despite the objections and a riot,[48][49] of the local population who unofficially, and against the traditions of the iconoclastic Church, worshiped the statue as the uncanonised Saint Demetra (Greek: Αγία Δήμητρα).[48] The people would adorn the statue with garlands,[48] and believed that the goddess was able to bring fertility to their fields and that the removal of the statue would cause that benefit to disappear.[46][48][50][51] Clarke also removed other marbles from Greece such as a statue of Pan, a figure of Eros, a comic mask, various reliefs and funerary steles, amongst others. Clarke donated these to the University of Cambridge and subsequently in 1803 the statue of Demeter was displayed at the university library. The collection was later moved to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge where it formed one of the two main collections of the institution.[46]

Contemporary reaction

When the marbles were shipped to England, they were "an instant success among many"[9] who admired the sculptures and supported their arrival, but both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors. Lord Elgin began negotiations for the sale of the collection to the British Museum in 1811, but negotiations failed despite the support of British artists[9] after the government showed little interest. Many Britons opposed purchase of the statues because they were in bad condition and therefore did not display the "ideal beauty" found in other sculpture collections.[9] The following years marked an increased interest in classical Greece, and in June 1816, after parliamentary hearings, the House of Commons offered £35,000 in exchange for the sculptures. Even at the time the acquisition inspired much debate, although it was supported by "many persuasive calls" for the purchase.[9]

Lord Byron strongly objected to the removal of the marbles from Greece, denouncing Elgin as a vandal.[10] His point of view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is also mentioned in his narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published in 1812, which itself was largely inspired by Byron's travels around the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea between 1809 and 1811:[52]

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!

Byron was not the only one to protest against the removal at the time:

"The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages. It was, it seems, fatal that a representative of our country loot those objects that the Turks and other barbarians had considered sacred," said Sir John Newport.[53]

Edward Daniel Clarke witnessed the removal of the metopes and called the action a "spoliation", writing that "thus the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery," and that "neither was there a workman employed in the undertaking ... who did not express his concern that such havoc should be deemed necessary, after moulds and casts had been already made of all the sculpture which it was designed to remove."[43] When Sir Francis Ronalds visited Athens and Giovanni Battista Lusieri in 1820, he wrote that "If Lord Elgin had possessed real taste in lieu of a covetous spirit he would have done just the reverse of what he has, he would have removed the rubbish and left the antiquities."[54][55]

A parliamentary committee investigating the situation concluded that the monuments were best given "asylum" under a "free government" such as the British one.[9] In 1810, Elgin published a defence of his actions,[4] but the subject remained controversial. John Keats viewed them in 1817 when they were exhibited in the British Museum, hence his famous sonnet about the marbles titled "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles". Notable supporters of Elgin included the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.[9]

A public debate in Parliament followed Elgin's publication, and Parliament again exonerated Elgin's actions. Parliament decided to purchase the marbles for the "British nation" in 1816 by a vote of 82–30 for £35,000.[10] They were deposited in the British Museum, where they were displayed in the Elgin Saloon (constructed in 1832), until the Duveen Gallery was completed in 1939. Crowds packed the British Museum to view the sculptures, setting attendance records for the museum.[9] William Wordsworth viewed the marbles at the museum and commented favourably on their aesthetics.[56]



Prior damage to the marbles was sustained during successive wars, and it was during such conflicts that the Parthenon and its artwork sustained, by far, the most extensive damage. In particular, an explosion ignited by Venetian gun and cannon-fire bombardment in 1687, whilst the Parthenon was used as a munitions store during the Ottoman rule, destroyed or damaged many pieces of Parthenon art, including some of that later taken by Lord Elgin.[57] It was this explosion that sent the marble roof, most of the cella walls, 14 columns from the north and south peristyles, and carved metopes and frieze blocks flying and crashing to the ground, destroying much of the artwork. Further damage to the Parthenon's artwork occurred when the Venetian general Francesco Morosini looted the site of its larger sculptures. The tackle he was using to remove the sculptures proved to be faulty and snapped, dropping an over-life-sized sculpture of Poseidon and the horses of Athena's chariot from the west pediment on to the rock of the Acropolis 40 feet (12 m) below.[58]

War of Independence

The Erechtheion was used as a munitions store by the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence[59] (1821–1833) which ended the 355-year Ottoman rule of Athens. The Acropolis was besieged twice during the war, first by the Greeks in 1821–22 and then by the Ottoman forces in 1826–27. During the first siege the besieged Ottoman forces attempted to melt the lead in the columns to cast bullets, even prompting the Greeks to offer their own bullets to the Ottomans in order to minimize damage.[60]


Elgin consulted with Italian sculptor Antonio Canova in 1803 about how best to restore the marbles. Canova was considered by some to be the world's best sculptural restorer of the time; Elgin wrote that Canova declined to work on the marbles for fear of damaging them further.[9]

To facilitate transport by Elgin, the columns' capitals and many metopes and frieze slabs were either hacked off the main structure or sawn and sliced into smaller sections, causing irreparable damage to the Parthenon itself.[61][62] One shipload of marbles on board the British brig Mentor [63] was caught in a storm off Cape Matapan in southern Greece and sank near Kythera, but was salvaged at the Earl's personal expense;[64] it took two years to bring them to the surface.

British Museum

The artefacts held in London suffered from 19th-century pollution which persisted until the mid-20th century and have suffered irreparable damage by previous cleaning methods employed by British Museum staff.[66]

As early as 1838, scientist Michael Faraday was asked to provide a solution to the problem of the deteriorating surface of the marbles. The outcome is described in the following excerpt from the letter he sent to Henry Milman, a commissioner for the National Gallery.[67][68]

The marbles generally were very dirty ... from a deposit of dust and soot. ... I found the body of the marble beneath the surface white. ... The application of water, applied by a sponge or soft cloth, removed the coarsest dirt. ... The use of fine, gritty powder, with the water and rubbing, though it more quickly removed the upper dirt, left much embedded in the cellular surface of the marble. I then applied alkalies, both carbonated and caustic; these quickened the loosening of the surface dirt ... but they fell far short of restoring the marble surface to its proper hue and state of cleanliness. I finally used dilute nitric acid, and even this failed. ... The examination has made me despair of the possibility of presenting the marbles in the British Museum in that state of purity and whiteness which they originally possessed.

A further effort to clean the marbles ensued in 1858. Richard Westmacott, who was appointed superintendent of the "moving and cleaning the sculptures" in 1857, in a letter approved by the British Museum Standing Committee on 13 March 1858 concluded[69]

I think it my duty to say that some of the works are much damaged by ignorant or careless moulding – with oil and lard – and by restorations in wax and resin. These mistakes have caused discolouration. I shall endeavour to remedy this without, however, having recourse to any composition that can injure the surface of the marble.

Yet another effort to clean the marbles occurred in 1937–38. This time the incentive was provided by the construction of a new Gallery to house the collection. The Pentelic marble mined from Mount Pentelicus north of Athens, from which the sculptures are made, naturally acquires a tan colour similar to honey when exposed to air; this colouring is often known as the marble's "patina"[70] but Lord Duveen, who financed the whole undertaking, acting under the misconception that the marbles were originally white[71] probably arranged for the team of masons working in the project to remove discolouration from some of the sculptures. The tools used were seven scrapers, one chisel and a piece of carborundum stone. They are now deposited in the British Museum's Department of Preservation.[71][72] The cleaning process scraped away some of the detailed tone of many carvings.[73] According to Harold Plenderleith, the surface removed in some places may have been as much as one-tenth of an inch (2.5 mm).[71]

The British Museum has responded with the statement that "mistakes were made at that time."[74] On another occasion it was said that "the damage had been exaggerated for political reasons" and that "the Greeks were guilty of excessive cleaning of the marbles before they were brought to Britain."[72] During the international symposium on the cleaning of the marbles, organised by the British Museum in 1999, curator Ian Jenkins, deputy keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities, remarked that "The British Museum is not infallible, it is not the Pope. Its history has been a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up, and the 1930s cleaning was such a cock-up". Nonetheless, he claimed that the prime cause for the damage inflicted upon the marbles was the 2000-year-long weathering on the Acropolis.[75]

American archeologist Dorothy King, in a newspaper article, wrote that techniques similar to the ones used in 1937–38 were applied by Greeks as well in more recent decades than the British, and maintained that Italians still find them acceptable.[30] The British Museum said that a similar cleaning of the Temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora was carried out by the conservation team of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens[76] in 1953 using steel chisels and brass wire.[64] According to the Greek ministry of Culture, the cleaning was carefully limited to surface salt crusts.[75] The 1953 American report concluded that the techniques applied were aimed at removing the black deposit formed by rain-water and "brought out the high technical quality of the carving" revealing at the same time "a few surviving particles of colour".[76]

Documents released by the British Museum under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that a series of minor accidents, thefts and acts of vandalism by visitors have inflicted further damage to the sculptures.[77] This includes an incident in 1961 when two schoolboys knocked off a part of a centaur's leg. In June 1981, a west pediment figure was slightly chipped by a falling glass skylight, and in 1966 four shallow lines were scratched on the back of one of the figures by vandals. In 1970 letters were scratched on to the upper right thigh of another figure. Four years later, the dowel hole in a centaur's hoof was damaged by thieves trying to extract pieces of lead.[77]


Air pollution and acid rain have damaged the marble and stonework.[78] The last remaining slabs from the western section of the Parthenon frieze were removed from the monument in 1993 for fear of further damage.[79] They have now been transported to the New Acropolis Museum.[78]

Until cleaning of the remaining marbles was completed in 2005,[80] black crusts and coatings were present on the marble surface.[81] The laser technique applied on the 14 slabs that Elgin did not remove revealed a surprising array of original details, such as the original chisel marks and the veins on the horses' bellies. Similar features in the British Museum collection have been scraped and scrubbed with chisels to make the marbles look white.[82][83] Between January 20 and the end of March 2008, 4200 items (sculptures, inscriptions small terracotta objects), including some 80 artefacts dismantled from the monuments in recent years, were removed from the old museum on the Acropolis to the new Parthenon Museum.[84][85] Natural disasters have also affected the Parthenon. In 1981, an earthquake caused damage to the east façade.[86]

Since 1975, Greece has been restoring the Acropolis. This restoration has included replacing the thousands of rusting iron clamps and supports that had previously been used, with non-corrosive titanium rods;[87] removing surviving artwork from the building into storage and subsequently into a new museum built specifically for the display of the Parthenon art; and replacing the artwork with high-quality replicas. This process has come under fire from some groups as some buildings have been completely dismantled, including the dismantling of the Temple of Athena Nike and for the unsightly nature of the site due to the necessary cranes and scaffolding.[87] But the hope is to restore the site to some of its former glory, which may take another 20 years and 70 million euros, though the prospect of the Acropolis being "able to withstand the most extreme weather conditions – earthquakes" is "little consolation to the tourists visiting the Acropolis" according to The Guardian.[87] Under continuous international pressure, Directors of the British Museum have not ruled out agreeing to what they call a "temporary" loan to the new museum, but state that it would be under the condition of Greece acknowledging the British Museum's claims to ownership.[53]

Relocation debate

Rationale for returning to Athens

Those arguing for the Marbles' return claim legal, moral and artistic grounds. Their arguments include:

  • The main stated aim of the Greek campaign is to reunite the Parthenon sculptures around the world in order to restore "organic elements" which "at present remain without cohesion, homogeneity and historicity of the monument to which they belong" and allow visitors to better appreciate them as a whole;[88][89][90]
  • Presenting all the extant Parthenon Marbles in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their "fuller understanding and interpretation";[89][91]
  • Precedents have been set with the return of fragments of the monument by Sweden,[92] the University of Heidelberg, Germany,[93] the Getty Museum in Los Angeles[93] and the Vatican;[94]
  • The marbles may have been obtained illegally and hence should be returned to their rightful owner;[95]
  • Returning the Parthenon sculptures (Greece is requesting only the return of sculptures from this particular building) would not set a precedent for other restitution claims because of the distinctively "universal value" of the Parthenon;[96]
  • Safekeeping of the marbles would be ensured at the New Acropolis Museum, situated to the south of the Acropolis hill. It was built to hold the Parthenon sculpture in natural sunlight that characterises the Athenian climate, arranged in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon. The museum's facilities have been equipped with state-of-the-art technology for the protection and preservation of exhibits;[97]
  • The friezes are part of a single work of art, thus it was unintended that fragments of this piece be scattered across different locations;
  • Casts of the marbles would be just as able to demonstrate the cultural influences which Greek sculptures have had upon European art as would the original marbles, whereas the context with which the marbles belong cannot be replicated within the British Museum;
  • A poll suggested that more British people (37%) supported the marbles' restoration to Greece than opposed it (23%).[98]

Rationale for retaining in London

A range of different arguments have been presented by scholars,[53] British political leaders and British Museum spokespersons over the years in defence of retention of the Elgin Marbles by the British Museum. The main points include:

  • the assertion that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world's great museums – this has also caused concerns among other European and American museums, with one potential target being the famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's Neues Museum; in addition, portions of Parthenon marbles are kept by many other European museums.[30] Advocates of the British Museum's position also point out that the Marbles in Britain receive about 6 million visitors per year as opposed to 1.5 million visitors to the Acropolis Museum. The removal of the Marbles to Greece would therefore, they argue, significantly reduce the number of people who have the opportunity to visit the Marbles.[99] The English Romantic poet John Keats, and the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, are notable examples of visitors to the Elgin Marbles after their removal to England who subsequently produced famous work inspired by them.[100][101]
  • the assertion that Modern Greeks have "no claim to the stones because you could see from their physiognomy that they were not descended from the men who had carved them," a quote attributed to Auberon Waugh[102]. In nineteenth century Western Europe, Greeks of the Classical period were widely imagined to have been light skinned and blond.[103] This view has been overturned by modern genetic research and is now widely understood as having racist underpinnings.[103]
  • the assertion that Greece could mount no court case, because Elgin claims to have been granted permission by what was then Greece's ruling government and a legal principle of limitation would apply, i.e., the ability to pursue claims expires after a period of time prescribed by law;[53]

The last was tested in the English High Court in May 2005 in relation to Nazi-looted Old Master artworks held at the British Museum, which the Museum's Trustees wished to return to the family of the original owner; the Court found that due to the British Museum Act 1963 these works could not be returned without further legislation. The judge, Mr Justice Morritt, found that the Act, which protects the collections for posterity, could not be overridden by a "moral obligation" to return works, even if they are believed to have been plundered.[104][105] It has been argued, however, that the case was not directly relevant to the Elgin Marbles, as it was about a transfer of ownership, and not the loan of artefacts for public exhibition overseas, which is provided for in the 1963 Act.[106]

Another argument for keeping the Elgin Marbles within the UK has been made by J. H. Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law at Stanford University and co-operating professor in the Stanford Art Department. He has argued that the Marbles are now established as a significant element of Britain's own cultural history, as "the Elgin Marbles have been in England since 1821 and in that time have become a part of the British cultural heritage."[107] He has also argued that if the Parthenon were actually being restored, there would be a moral argument for returning the Marbles to the temple whence they came, and thus restoring its integrity. The Guardian has written that many among those who support repatriation imply that the marbles would be displayed in their original position on the Parthenon.[30] However, the Greek plan is to transfer them from a museum in London to one in Athens. These arguments are perhaps complicated a little by the completion of the new Acropolis Museum in 2009, where the half not removed by Elgin is now displayed, aligned in orientation and within sight of the Parthenon, with the position of the missing elements clearly marked and space left should they be returned to Athens.[8]

The Trustees of the British Museum make the following statement on the Museum website in response to arguments for the relocation of the Elgin Marbles to the Acropolis Museum: "The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. This display does not alter the Trustees’ view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. The Trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of ancient Greece."[108][109]

Public perception of the issue

Outside Greece a campaign for the Return of the Marbles began in 1981 with the formation of the International Organising Committee - Australia - for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, and in 1983 with the formation of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. International organisations such as UNESCO and the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, as well as campaign groups such as, Marbles Reunited, and stars of Hollywood, such as George Clooney and Matt Damon, as well as Human Rights activists, lawyers, and the people of the arts, voiced their strong support for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

American actor George Clooney voiced his support for the return by the United Kingdom and reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Greece, during his promotional campaign for his 2014 film The Monuments Men which retells the story of Allied efforts to save important masterpieces of art and other culturally important items before their destruction by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. His remarks regarding the Marbles reignited the debate in the United Kingdom about their return to their home country. Public polls were also carried out by newspapers in response to Clooney's stance on this matter.

An internet campaign site,[110] in part sponsored by Metaxa, aims to consolidate support for the return of the Elgin Marbles to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Noted public intellectual Christopher Hitchens had, at numerous times, argued for their repatriation.[111]

In BBC TV Series QI (S12E07XL), host Stephen Fry provided his support for the return of the Elgin Marbles while recounting the story of the Greeks giving lead shot to their Ottoman Empire enemies, as the Ottomans were running out of ammunition, in order to prevent damage to the Acropolis. Fry had previously written a blog post along much the same lines in December 2011 entitled "A Modest Proposal", signing off with "It's time we lost our marbles".[112]

Opinion polls

A YouGov poll in 2014 suggested that more British people (37%) supported the marbles' restoration to Greece than opposed it (23%).[98]

In older polls, Ipsos MORI asked in 1998, "If there were a referendum on whether or not the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece, how would you vote?" This returned these values from the British general adult population:[113]

  • 40% in favour of returning the marbles to Greece
  • 15% in favour of keeping them at the British Museum
  • 18% would not vote
  • 27% had no opinion

Another opinion poll in 2002 (again carried out by MORI) showed similar results, with 40% of the British public in favour of returning the marbles to Greece, 16% in favour of keeping them within Britain and the remainder either having no opinion or would not vote.[114] When asked how they would vote if a number of conditions were met (including, but not limited to, a long-term loan whereby the British maintained ownership and joint control over maintenance) the number responding in favour of return increased to 56% and those in favour of keeping them dropped to 7%.

Both MORI poll results have been characterised by proponents of the return of the Marbles to Greece as representing a groundswell of public opinion supporting return, since the proportion explicitly supporting return to Greece significantly exceeds the number who are explicitly in favour of keeping the Marbles at the British Museum.[113][115]

Other displaced Parthenon art

The remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in museums or storerooms in Athens are held in museums in various locations across Europe. The British Museum also holds additional fragments from the Parthenon sculptures acquired from various collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.

The collection held in the British Museum includes the following material from the Acropolis:

  • Parthenon: 247 ft (75 m) of the original 524 ft (160 m) frieze
    • 15 of the 92 metopes
    • 17 pedimental figures, including a figure of a river-god, possibly the river Ilissos;[117]
    • various pieces of architecture
  • Erechtheion: a Caryatid, a column and other architectural members
  • Propylaia: Architectural members
  • Temple of Athena Nike: 4 slabs of the frieze and architectural members

British Museum loan

The British Museum lent the figure of a river-god, possibly the river Ilissos, to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary.[118] It was on display there from Saturday 6 December 2014 until Sunday 18 January 2015. This was the first time the British Museum had lent part of its Elgin Marbles collection and it caused considerable controversy.[119]

Labour party leader stance and new dimensions to the dispute caused by Brexit

In a 2018 interview to the Athens newspaper Ta Nea, quoted later in The Independent, the British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn did not rule out returning the Marbles to Greece, stating

"As with anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past – we should be engaged in constructive talks with the Greek government about returning the sculptures."[120]

See also


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Further reading

Pros and cons of restitution

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