Elgin Marbles

In the wake of the British Museum’s decision to lend of one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia, the Telegraph asks, “Why are the Elgin Marbles so controversial?” and provides some answers:


What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.


I think that one of the keys to this whole controversy is the line that “Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.” A grad school professor of mine told me once that the ideology of the modern Greek state, founded in 1832 as a result of a revolution against the Ottoman Empire (and the help of the UK, France, and Russia), is that the state is in fact a continuation or reassertion of the Classical polis of Athens. A Greek I once spoke to hinted that he actually believed this. As such, one can see how the Elgin Marbles would assume such an outsized importance – and how any Ottoman treatment of them was completely illegitimate. Such uses of history are hogwash, of course. Why is the modern Greek state not figured as a continuation of the Byzantine state? Or a reassertion of Classical Sparta – or Bronze Age Mycenae? You can’t cherry-pick what you most value from history and ignore everything else that’s happened before and since (apparently Israelis used to practice archaeology on this principle, by shoveling off the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic layers in order to get to the Biblical ones that they were really interested in, and which their own state, they claim, is simply a new instantiation of). It is amusing to read how the British see the Parthenon as having fallen into ruins – this is a trope in furta sacra (accounts of medieval relic thefts), and employed to justify those thefts. Even the notion that “if they had been left in place, the air pollution in Athens would have damaged them” is not necessarily a watertight argument: when I lived in London a story broke that in the 1930s the British Museum cleaned the sculptures a little too enthusiastically, thereby destroying traces of the original colors used to paint them. Besides, say the Greeks, when they come back will go into a specially-designed Parthenon Museum, where they will be protected from the climate (my brother-in-law has visited this, and claims they’ve got an empty room all ready for them).

But I think the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum anyway. The Marbles do not belong to “Greece”, they belong to all of Western Civilization. And spreading things around geographically is like diversifying your investment portfolio – it helps to guard against the whole thing being destroyed in some disaster. Besides, Greeks, how about some gratitude to the people who helped free you from the Ottomans in the first place?!


Here are some pictures of the last time I visited the Duveen Gallery in 2010:

I took one of these pamphlets but I can’t find it now. The British Museum website probably gives just as much information.