Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica

The Marbles Belong in Athens: Don’t Split History

The Parthenon marbles were illegitimately removed by Lord Elgin of England more than 200 years ago. Today, they are split between Athens and London. It is time to bring the marbles back where they belong.

The Elgin Marbles refer to the marble sculptures removed from the Athenian Acropolis by Lord Elgin. The prospect of their return has been a prominent issue of discussion among Greeks for several decades. However, the reunification of the marbles only gained international traction in the 1980s after an initiative led by the Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.
Over the years, there has been ongoing disagreement among Greece and Great Britain. Several points have been raised concerning rightful ownership, adequate storage, and displaying conditions. Some Britons suggest that having the Parthenon Marbles exhibited in the British Museum allows visitors the unique opportunity to appreciate them next to other works from a similar epoch. The Greeks see a big chunk of their history and cultural heritage ripped off their most significant national monument and wish to see it returned to its rightful place. We argue that it is about time that we bring them back, not only to see the Greek marbles be within sight of the mount Pentelicus where they were originally carved, but to reunite the complete collection of the artifacts in one single collection.
The Parthenon marbles ended up under the ownership of the British Museum after a questionable transaction between the British government and Thomas Bruce, better known as Lord Elgin. Lord Elgin had come in possession of the marbles after he was granted permission from the Turkish regime, which at the time occupied Greece. With the country under Ottoman occupation, the 7th Earl of Elgin met little opposition in attaining a firman from the Turkish authorities — a special permission letter granting him access to study, take molds, and ultimately remove parts of the Parthenon temple as well as other artifacts from the Athenian Acropolis.
Parts of the Parthenon, mainly some of its exterior metopes and its interior frieze, as well as a number of other architectural fragments of other temples on the Acropolis, were brought to England with Elgin. The metopes, which are decorative plates on the external facade of the temple, narrate a different story on each of the four temple walls. The three stories of the Northern, Eastern and Western sides of the Parthenon’s metopes are told in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, within sight of the Acropolis rock and the Parthenon temple. But what remains today is an incomplete piece of cultural heritage, since the story of the Southern side is told in London. Similarly, parts of the Parthenon's frieze - a wide central part of the entablature running around the inner temple - depicting the great Athenian celebration of the Panathenaic procession, are in London and not Athens. Effectively, to see one of the four sides of the same story, one needs an additional plane ticket and a new museum pass.
Among the artifacts Elgin took with him was one of the six female figures, known as Caryatid, which acted as a supporting column on the Erechtheion Temple. Four of the figures are displayed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, while the fifth only survives in fragments and an empty space awaits the sixth’s return from the British Museum.
After their transfer to London, a few of these sculptures found a place among Elgin’s personal collection in Broomhall House, the Earls of Elgin family seat. Others took a bit longer to arrive since they needed to be fished out of the bottom of the ocean after one of Elgin’s ships was wrecked during the original shipment to England. The attempts to recover them lasted for the better parts of three years and ended up with them in shambles.
The pieces were later on purchased by the British Government after Elgin declared bankruptcy following a divorce settlement in 1808. Elgin sold his collection for the generous amount of £35,000 — the value of which is £500,000 in today’s currency — and the Parthenon Marbles have been displayed in their current form in the Parthenon Room of the British Museum since 1962.
Lord Elgin took national artifacts through illegitimate means and the artifacts suffered a costly ride to England where they were sold to the British Museum and where they remain until today. But what is perhaps contrary to popular opinion is that this controversy is not only a question about the legality of the transaction that led to the movement of the marbles to London but also an argument for whether it is acceptable and encourageable to have a work of art split up and exhibited in different locations. What is different about the Parthenon Marbles is that it seems counterintuitive to have a work of art displayed in separate locations. Hence, we believe that the heart of this debate lies in the need to see what is a single unit, become whole again. In this case, we have a temple, but what if we were to consider another case? We believe that the thought of a statue to ever be displayed in separate parts - has its head displayed in one museum and its body in another - is unreasonable.
We do not want to see the cosmopolitanism of the British Museum compromised. The British perspective argues that it wishes to exhibit the finest examples of all world cultures and provide an outlet for their study. In return, we argue that no separate plane ticket and museum access should ever be required to see the other half of a story.
Foivos Mavridis is a contributing writer, and Nicholas Patas is a Staff Writer. Email them at
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