History of the Elgin Marbles


The Elgin Marbles were taken from the Parthenon by Lord
Elgin in the 19th century, and placed in the British
Museum. They are considered by many to be one of the most
important features of the Acropolis of Athens (were they
there). The Greek government has demanded their return on
several occasions, and the British government has refused
to return them, claiming that they are housed and conserved
better in Britain. 

 In 1816, the Marbles were sold to the British government
and were at once transferred from Burlington House to the
British Museum, where a special gallery was eventually
built for them by Sir Joseph Duveen at his own expense.
Ever since then, these peices of art have been the subject
for great legal debate. (Vranopoulos, 1985) 

 The British government has many arguments against
returning the Marbles to their orignal location in Athens.
First, they feel the marbles were brought there
legitimately from the Turks on the basis of a legal
document, the Sultan's firman. Second, the object in taking
them was to save them from total destruction, and the
Greeks were indifferent to the fate of the their ancient
treasures at the time. Finally, they feel that air
pollution levels in Athens would quickly damage the
Marbles. (Vranopoulos, 1985) The Greeks feel these reasons
alone do not justify their actions. They feel that there is
no evidence that the Marbles were purchased legitimately.
They maintain that the Turkish officials were bribed by the
British. They also feel that Elgin did more damage to them
by removing them from the Parthenon. He had to saw some of
the statues in half to reduce their weight and make
transporting them easier. There is also evidence that
indicates the Greeks grieved for their lost marbles,
including the myth that the Caryatids could be heard
wailing at night for their missing sister, and the claims
by porters carrying the statues who thought they could hear
cries coming from the figures in the crates. Finally, in
response to the air pollution aligations, the greeks feel
the Marbles suffered far more damage from their lengthy
stay in the heavily polluted atmosphere of London than they
would have done if they had stayed in Athens where
pollution is only a very recent phenomenon. Lord Elgin
admitted to the House of Commons that London's dampness had
caused decay to the sensitive Pentelic marble. This was in
1816. (Williams, 1996)
 The British Museum, to this day, tries to present Elgin as
a lover of antiquity who dedicated himself to rescuing
Pheidias' sculptures from ultimate destruction. But the
facts of the case pesent a very different picture. With the
Sultan's firman in his hand, Elgin seemed to think he had
been given the right to take away anything he could lay his
hands on. His actions didn't pass unnoticed. A lot of
Members of Parliament protested against Elgin's action in
the House of Commons but over the course of time were
forgotten. There were also a lot of English writers, among
them Lord Byron, who wrote that Elgin was a marble stealer
and robber and his only interest was fame and glory from
showing the Marbles. (Vranopoulos, 1985) 

 Among the first people to criticise Lord Elgin was H.
Hammersley MP. He advocated that if any future Greek
government demanded the Marbles back, England should return
them without any further procedure or negotiation. Also in
1890 an editorial by Franklin Harrison, which appeared in
the magazine "19th Century", entitled "Return the Elgin
Marbles!" maintained that the sculptures were more dear to
the Greeks than to the British. (Williams, 1996) 

 The decision of the British government to return the Stone
of Scone to Scotland encouraged the Greek government to
demand, via the British Ambassador in Athens and the
Heritage Minister in London, the return of the Parthenon
Marbles to Greece. Also, the Greek culture minister, has
also mentioned that he intends to pursue the matter through
political and legal procedures involving Unesco, the
European Union and the Council of Europe. 

 In December 1940 a Labour MP, Mrs Keir, asked the Prime
Minister, Winston Churchill whether the Marbles would be
returned to Greece in partial recognition of that country's
valiant resistance to the Germans and the sacrifices of its
people. The answer came back negative. At the time that Mrs
Keir officially announced her question, there was a large
number of letters published in the Times favouring the
return of the Marbles to Greece.
Then in 1941 the head of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee,
who was a member of the wartime coalition government,
replied to Mrs Keir's question, saying that there was no
intention to take any legal steps for the return of the
Marbles. At the present, the Brittish government is not
negotiating. However, few people support the British Museum
holding the Parthenon Marbles. Last year, 33 Labour MPs
signed a Commons motion calling for the Parthenon Marbles
to be returned to Greece. Also, an opinion poll revealed
recently that out of 99,340 people who expressed an
opinion, a massive 91,822 voted in favour of returning the
Elgin Marbles to the place they resided for over two
millennia at the Acropolis. Previously, various opinion
polls in this country in the 1980s revealed that around 70%
of the British public favoured their return.
(Williams, 1996) I feel there is a very good chance that
the Elgin Marbles may again see their original site at the
Parethon. In a society like Brittains where the people
utltimatly rule, the government will have to follow suit
sooner or later. 

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