For over a decade, staff at The British Museum refused to even discuss returning the controversially procured Elgin Marbles to Greece. Now, they’re sitting around a table with Greek heritage officials.
The Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of sculptures and friezes that were originally featured in the 5th century BC Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis in Greece. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, this legendary building’s sculptures represent the pinnacle of Greek art. The Elgin Marbles are regarded not only as a symbol of the birth of democracy , but also of Western civilization.
In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was a British nobleman, soldier, politician, diplomat, and the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire , which ruled Greece at the time. History remembers Elgin for having controversially “procured” the ancient marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. At the time, Lord Byron proclaimed Elgin’s procurement of the marbles was “cultural vandalism.”
This painting shows an idealized view of the Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. The room was designed by the Museum’s architect, Robert Smirke, for the temporary display of the sculptures from the Parthenon brought from Athens by Lord Elgin known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ ( Public Domain )
However, in 1810, a British parliamentary committee supported Elgin, and the Parthenon Marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 for £35,000. They have been displayed at The British Museum ever since.
Millions of visitors to The British Museum view the Elgin Marbles and Parthenon sculptures annually (Alan Cordova / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
Small Steps towards Big Change
In 2019, Ancient Origins published a news story about Dr. Emma Payne from King’s College London using 3D imaging techniques to create digital images of the West Frieze of the Elgin Marbles. Then in 2020, we wrote about the increasing “archaeological dispute” between Britain and Greece over the destiny of the allegedly ill-gotten artifacts. Greek City Times said “Brexit tension” had ramped up the debate, after a demand for the return of stolen cultural artifacts appeared in a draft European Union mandate.
Up until now, however, the British Museum in London has point-blank refused to even discuss the return of the famous Elgin Marbles. However this week, CNN reported that staff at The British Museum said “constructive discussions” are being held with Greek heritage officials over the Parthenon Sculptures, and that the 2,500-year-old marbles “might soon be returned” to their home in Athens.
The British Museum has displayed the controversial Elgin Marbles since the early 1800s. Recent talks may finally result in their repatriation to Greece. (Chris Devers / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
An Act Inspired By Papal Decree?
All this comes only weeks after Pope Francis announced that he will return three Parthenon pieces to Greece that have been held in the Vatican Museums for over 100 years. The Vatican said in a statement in December that the Pope was “giving them to Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church , as a gesture of ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church”.
Just after this announcement, the Greek government said it was in talks with The British Museum “over the Elgin Marble repatriation.” The Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday that “an agreement had been drawn up” with the museum’s chairman, former finance minister George Osborne, to allow the artifacts to be returned as part of an exchange deal. The British Museum said in a statement that “constructive discussions are now ongoing”.
Three fragments of the Parthenon sculptures at the Vatican will be returned to Greece. The pictured fragment came from the southern metopes with the centaur battle ( Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports )
A Complicated and Sizzling Hot Topic
Traditionally, The British Museum has forbidden any discussions pertaining to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece on the grounds that they were legally acquired. Moreover, UK laws prevented the collection from being broken up. However, this week a British governmental spokesperson said the British government is now pursuing the idea of “reunifying the Parthenon Sculptures with Greece”.
Stepping back to 2002, an article in The Guardian said it is “foolish, on an impulse of misguided post-imperial revisionism, to undermine the world’s great collections.” The main argument for the artifacts staying in Britain is that “major museums have always promoted the cultures of other nations by showing and sharing them in an international and historical context.” The Elgin Marbles, while on display at the British Museum, have taken on “an identity as icons of civilization, invested with values that cannot and should not be reduced to national particularisms”.
Are The Elgin Marbles About To Be Returned To Greece?
The Guardian suggested that if these sculptures were to leave the British Museum “a Pandora‘s box would be opened,” with endless claims for the restitution of the exhibits of all the great museums of the world. “The world would thereby be impoverished,” it was claimed. Nevertheless, this week The Art Newspaper reported that if this new deal is finalized, “the marbles are expected to be returned to Greece in early 2023” where they will be displayed at the Acropolis Museum with their sister artifacts from the Parthenon.
Top image: Photo of the Parthenon Marbles, East Pediment. The Elgin Marbles have been controversial ever since they were taken from Greece. Source: Justin Norris / CC BY 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
British Museum says it’s in ‘constructive’ discussions over Parthenon marbles . January 4, 2023. Reuters. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/british-museum-parthenon-marbles-greece/index.html
Charbis, A. January 7, 2023. Parthenon Sculptures take center stage . Ekathimerini. Available at: https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1201729/parthenon-sculptures-take-center-stage/
EU and Brexit trade talks include return of Parthenon Sculptures to Greece . February 19, 2020. Reuters. Available at: https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/02/19/eu-brings-return-of-parthenon-sculptures-to-greece-into-brexit-trade-talks/
Harrison, J. and Solomon, T. January 6, 2023. Greece Rejects Possibility of Parthenon Marbles ‘Loan’ in New Statement . Art News. Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/greece-rejects-parthenon-marbles-loan-plan-statement-1234652854/
Howarth, A. February 5, 2002. The Elgin marbles should stay . The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/feb/05/artsandhumanities.highereducation
Seymour, T. December 5, 2022. Secret talks between British Museum and Greece to return Parthenon Marbles in ‘advanced stages’ . The Art Newspaper. Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/12/05/after-spending-200-years-in-the-british-museum-the-elgin-marbles-may-be-about-to-return-to-greece
Simpson, C. January 3, 2023. Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece in landmark deal . The Daily Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/01/03/elgin-marbles-could-soon-returned-greece-landmark-deal/
Vatican Fast Facts . March 31, 2022. CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/30/world/vatican-fast-facts/index.html