The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism
The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.
Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.
Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.
Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.
Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.
Detailing from the Elgin Marbles
Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.
Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.
Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display
Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.
Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.
The Greek National Archaeological Museum
The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.
The debate is ongoing.