Visiting Athens and the spectacular Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece has changed by view point on the controversial Elgin Marbles – so I decided to dig around and found out what I could. This is what I discovered.
The Parthenon Marbles – the story so far
Human Rights Lawyer Amal Clooney has once again put the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’ back into the media headlines this year. Considering that the lawyer and her team prepared a 150 page report for Greek Ministers on the case for legally reclaiming the artefacts from the British Museum, it might be hard to summarise the centuries-old controversy in just a few hundred words…but here goes.
Carved more than 2,500 years ago, the Parthenon Marbles are Greek classical sculptures and architectural details that were once part of the Parthenon and other temples on the Acropolis.
7th Earl of Elgin
For centuries what is now modern Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century when he allegedly acquired permission from the Ottoman governors of Athens to remove the sculptures and take them to the UK.
According to museum sources, the Parthenon had become badly damaged a century before when Ottoman gunpowder and ammunition stored in the temple exploded in 1687. Afterwards, according to the Acropolis Museum, visitors would go through the rubble taking Sculptures and fragments at souvenirs!
By 1800 it was believed that almost half of the original marbles were either destroyed or stolen. It was therefore argued, during the decade it took for Elgin to remove almost half of the remaining Parthenon marble sculptures, that they were being preserved. By 1816 they were acquired from the Earl by the British Government and passed to the British Museum where they have remained ever since – on display for free since 1817.
|Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 3 December 2005.
Since Greece become an independent country in the 1930s, the country has been trying to repatriate cultural heritage that it considers was taken when the country was ‘occupied’ by the Ottomans.
Diplomatic and legal disputes have raged. Yet this year the new Greek government announced it was not going to pursue legal action against the UK but instead rely on diplomatic pressure.
Waiting for the Marbles
The new Acropolis Museum completed in 2007 was built as the new home of the Parthenon Marbles, and features originals as well as casts of the missing marbles within its Parthenon Gallery on the 3rd floor.
The British Museum points out that it is not the only museum that has classical Greek artefacts from the Acropolis, citing other European institutions such as the Vatican and the Louvre Museums, The National Museum in Copenhagen as well as two German Museums that all hold Parthenon sculptures.
The story is surely going to continue for many years to come.