Battle Over the Elgin Marbles Rages On

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  06.16.09 | 1:08 PM ET

Photo by roblisameehan via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We blogged about one writer’s sneak peek at the New Acropolis Museum last summer, and now opening day has finally arrived—predictably, not without controversy.

The museum was designed both to pressure Britain for the return of the Elgin Marbles, and to provide a worthy home for them after their (eventual, theoretical) return. With that context in mind, it’s no surprise that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the director of the British Museum—where the marbles are currently held—have all declined invitations to the grand opening on Saturday.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman’s suggestion that the British Museum might loan the marbles to Athens, conditional on the Greek government’s acknowledgment of Britain’s ownership of them, didn’t go over too well either. The Athens culture minister told the Guardian that agreeing to the condition “would be like sanctifying Elgin’s deeds and legitimising the theft of the marbles and the break-up of the monument 207 years ago. No Greek government could accept that.”

I think the British Museum has run out of excuses. I don’t see how Elgin’s carving up of the Parthenon all those years ago qualifies as anything other than gross cultural vandalism (interestingly, Lord Elgin was also the one who gave the order to pillage and torch Beijing’s Old Summer Palace), and the standard line—that Athens can’t take care of its own cultural heritage—seems to be negated by the new Ä130 million facility. I haven’t made it to Athens yet, but when I do I’d love to see the Parthenon friezes reunited at last.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

15 Comments for Battle Over the Elgin Marbles Rages On

Mark Notaras 06.16.09 | 2:14 PM ET

The controversy surrounding Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Marbles was prevalent in Elginís day and has continued to cause indignation and heated debate ever since. But did Lord Elgin plunder these classical masterpieces or did he in fact save them from destruction for future generations?

Read more in my blog post:

pam 06.16.09 | 4:21 PM ET

I don’t think it matters any more what Elgin’s motivation was. Awesome, he saved the marbles from destruction. Or, hey, he pilfered them and shipped them off in an blatant act of theft. Whatever, Eglin is long gone. The marbles have a spectacular new home waiting for them in the country where they were born. Why not repatriate them? It’s time.

Steve Kay 06.16.09 | 7:23 PM ET

By act of sovereign parliament the Elgin Marbles are owned by the British People and entrusted to the permanent custodianship of the British Museum. And that is that.

Eva Holland 06.16.09 | 7:53 PM ET

Steve - I wasn’t aware that the British parliament had jurisdiction in Athens, now or ever.

Pam - Well said.

Dan 06.16.09 | 11:45 PM ET

The idea that Elgin saved the marbles of course ignores four incidents:

1. Elgin destroyed the cornice and parts of the Parthenon when he hacked the marbles off.
2. Elgin’s ship sank together with all the marbles, and in the bid to recover the marbles off the coast of Italy, more damage was caused.
3. In the 1930’s, the British museum took bleach to the marbles and scrubbed them, permanently damaging them again.
4. During a fundraiser cocktail reception, wine was spilled on the marbles causing permanent discoloration.

Mark Notaras 06.17.09 | 7:19 AM ET

Dan, you raise some good points. Did you read my post? It includes the issue of the cornice but also provides examples from the other viewpoint.
I should probably add the issue of the sinking of the Mentor to which you refer to. It is necessary to point out that the Mentor contained only a portion of the marbles, all of which were recovered at massive personal cost to Elgin.

The restoration carried out by the British Museum was regrettable. Thereís a report from the British Museums point of view here:

Ling 06.17.09 | 9:48 AM ET

Britain is home to a lot of plundered loot from around the world. If they start ‘repatriating’ stuff, there’s going to be no end to it. Maybe the British could hand over Gordon Brown to the Greeks, instead of the marbles. From what I read, won’t be a lot of people who’ll miss him anyway.

Grizzly Bear Mom 06.17.09 | 12:42 PM ET

Long ago theft is still theft regardless of what the receviing governments opinion of that is.  Excellent comment Eva. 

However I would like to be assured that the Parthenon is restored and protected from continual envirnomental damage it is currently subject to before I saw the marbles returned.

Dan 06.17.09 | 1:04 PM ET


Thanks for the link. Very informative.

I should hope that the UK comes up with better arguments about holding onto the marbles. First, the argument put forth was that Greece had no proper place to keep the marbles.

Now the argument has changed. I’ve heard the UK minister say that the marbles are better kept in a “world context.” Using the word context, in this instance, is a bit out of context. The marbles used to be situated on the Parthenon, on the Acropolis, and that’s the original context. Surely, the idea then is not to take a sculpture out of its originary situation in order to present it in a wax museum for comparative purposes. How can the minister justify such logic?

Lastly, I’ve heard it said that the marbles are best kept in London because they don’t belong only to the Greeks, they belong to everyone. It’s such an anglocentric view. “Everyone” apparently is associated with London. There is no “everyone” in Athens. Beyond that, there are offensive ethnic suppositions in such a statement, invariably settling on the logic that today’s Greeks are not direct descendants to the ancients. So what? Who is a direct descendant of their ethnological forebears? What does that prove? Surely, they associate more closely with the ancient Greek heritage than any other people in the world, especially in their shared language and land.

When I read James Cuno’s arguments about museum collections, he often ventures into these embarrassing racialist areas, and I can only imagine that he’s grasping for a foothold.

Steve Kay 06.17.09 | 7:43 PM ET

Eva - You know perfectly well who had jurisdiction in Athens when Lord Elgin was there (and had had for nigh on 350 years). And you know that Elgin must have had, could only have had, the full permission and cooperation of the governing Ottomans in order to ship out numerous consignments of sculptures (archaic sculptures salvaged from the bombeb-out ruins of a former mosque) over a protracted period of two years. The Greek culture minister perfectly well knows that too.

The British parliament of 1816 found Elgin’s acquisitions legal and voted to purchase them on behalf of the nation - and to the British nation they belong.

The Elgin Marbles will not leave the care of the British Museum. The much prized panel kept in France, the one Napoleon had tidied-up a bit, will not be leaving the Louvre, and the odd floor slab inside the Washington Monument will not be coming off the wall.

Dan 06.17.09 | 11:26 PM ET

Steve, was the British Parliament of 1816 bothered at all by the plundering of the marbles? Did they have any scruples. You and I both know the answer to that question. “The British Parliament condemned Elgin for robbing antiquities and destroying monuments after debating his rightful claims to ownership and his actions.” 30 members voted against the purchase of the marbles after much controversy over the manner in which Elgin had come into the marbles. Even by the standards if 1816, when the UK was in its colonial glory and showed little remorse at stripping countries of their riches across the world, even then, the British Parliament realized that this was worse than theft, this was stripping and destroying ancient heritage.

The government at the time were invaders and oppressors. Let’s see, maybe we should cut a deal with Russia the next time they make an incursion into Georgia, gotta to be some good swag available there, and the Russians won’t care much if we can pay for the “privilege.” Let’s ask the USA if we can plunder the Iraqi museums (oh wait, there’s nothing left).

ilias 06.22.09 | 9:16 AM ET

“By act of sovereign parliament the Elgin Marbles are owned by the British People and entrusted to the permanent custodianship of the British Museum. And that is that.”

In case you have’t noticed we live in the 21st century, and most of all HELLAS ( I hate to be called greek) is NOT a Brittish colony.
Face the fact, drop the arrogance and for god’s sake ADMIT IT. If ( and you will) return to us the stolen, others will follow, and eventually your luxurious museum will be out of business. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE MONEY you will lose. Besides you don’t need our marbles to present to the world.
You have the famous London tower. Inside anyone can see those genious inventions for human torture.

Ilias 06.22.09 | 9:27 AM ET

Info to all.

I am not sure how many of you are aware of the origin of the word “Greece”.

Allow me to tell you that during the 400 years of slavery under the Turks, among other humiliation, we were given the name “Γραικός”, graekos, meaning slave, and guess under what language and when it turned out as a national country name. Greece, that’s right. The country of slaves. Far beyond the reality. So if any of you wishes, please when you refer to my country use the official term that is ” HELLAS”. 10 million people would be really gratefull.

Thank you all.

Dan Asta 06.22.09 | 9:54 AM ET

An enemy of Greece could do no better to make a mockery of the ethnicity than this fellow is doing with his gloss on the word Greece.

Greek is an ancient name and it refers to a tribe of Hellenes that came from northern Greece. When the Romans traveled into the part of the southern Balkans known today as Greece, the first two Hellenic-speaking tribes they encountered were the Macedonians and Grakoi, and hence the Romans took to referring to all Hellenes as Greeks. This tribe was located from Thessaly to Epirus. The appellation Greek (in global circles) has been in use for far far longer than the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans.

Really, you have to check your facts.

Ilias 06.22.09 | 6:48 PM ET

I’ve read your previous posts and I thank you for your support on returning this treasure to its natural place,my country. However, concerning the etymology I do know that there were some tribes from southern Italy or else kalabria, “Καλαβρία” ( where even today there are some similar to ours, tunes,  sculptures etc.) and they came as small disorganised units which were eventually adopting the local customs and way of life, still this are all theories. Some even say that those tribes were excluded of any public festivities and so on, until some period simply because they were not considered greeks but barbarians. It doesn’t matter. My point is that there’s two sides of the same coin. One that you obviously are aware of, ( good for you) and the other which you obviously didn’t know.
I have no intention to fight against you, it is just that there are certain things that you may not know of. That’s just it. By the way, have you heard of the word “ragias” ? has similar meaning to the above. And it was also used by Turks. Go through it and see what you can come up with. see ya!!

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