Why the marbles now need to be returned

An article in the Sydney University Museum's News, by David Hill, chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.


Give us your marbles

By David Hill, Chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the
Parthenon Sculptures

Later this year Athens will see the opening of the magnificent new Acropolis Museum, arguably one of the most significant buildings to be built in the city for the past two thousand years. The Museum, which is located below the south east corner of the Acropolis, will house all the surviving ancient artifacts from the Acropolis - including the sculptures of the Parthenon.

It has been designed to house the sculptures on the top floor and these sculptures will be presented in exactly the same configuration and position as they sat on the Parthenon. The Temple itself can be seen from the Museum, through vast glass windows, across the Acropolis.

About half the surviving 200-odd pieces of marble sculptures from the Parthenon are in the British Museum, having been stripped from the temple by the staff of Lord Elgin, who was the British Ambassador to the region around 1800. Elgin had intended the sculptures to adorn his family estate in Scotland but in 1816, when facing severe financial problems, he sold the collection to the British Government. The Government passed them on to the British Museum.

Most of the other surviving sculptures are still in Athens, although a few smaller pieces and fragments are held in a variety of European museums, including those in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Palermo, Munich, Strasburg and the Vatican. A small fragment from the Parthenon frieze was returned to Athens by the Heidelberg Museum last year.

Elgin took the sculptures that were in the best condition, leaving those that had been ravaged by time and events. He also left the entire sculptured west frieze, because the Temple’s heavy marble superstructure was still intact at this end of the building and too difficult to move. To remove much of the marble frieze, Elgin used special saws to cut them from the building and in doing so permanently destroyed much of the building’s structure.

In some cases Elgin took part of a statue piece, leaving the other half in Athens. The shoulders and breast of the magnificent, twice-life-size statue of the god Poseidon from the west pediment of the Parthenon is in the British Museum; the lower part of the torso remains in Athens.

The Parthenon sculptures are among the world’s finest surviving ancient art works. Built in the middle of the 5th century BC, the Parthenon is unique in a number of respects and represents a pinnacle of human achievement. It is also symbolic of the great cultural achievements of the time; in art, architecture, science, mathematics, theatre, philosophy and democracy.

It was the most decorated of all ancient Greek temples. Around the outside and on all four sides there were a total of 92 sculptured panels, or metopes, depicting a number of scenes reflecting the struggle of good over evil. It was the only ancient Greek temple with sculptured metopes on all four sides of the building. On the architrave inside the building sat the magnificent frieze that ran for 160 metres around all four walls, depicting a procession that culminates with the twelve Olympian gods seated on the sacred east end of the building.

In the triangular pediments at each end of the building were about 40 statues-in-the- round. At the centre of the east end was depicted the birth of Athena springing from the head of Zeus. At the western end the centre depicted a struggle between Athena and Poseidon for control of Attica.

The Greek Government and many supporters around the world have been calling for Britain to return the Elgin Collection so that the entire surviving work can be reunited in its original setting to allow the original narrative to be appreciated.

By not agreeing to return the sculptures Britain is increasingly out of step with modern museum practice around the world. No one would argue that all the objects in museums should be returned to their country of origin but there is now almost universal acceptance of the principle that items of special significance should be repatriated. In 1997 a survey of the British Museums Association revealed that 97 per cent of their members supported the principle of repatriating cultural property in certain circumstances.

The British Museum has no reasonable grounds for retaining the collection. On their website they say that the British Museum is a ‘universal’ museum and that in London more people are able to see the collection. However, less than one million people a year now visit the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum to see the Parthenon sculptures, less than half the number that visit the Acropolis in Athens. With the opening of the new Acropolis museum we can expect the number of visitors to further increase.

Throughout Britain and around the world there has been growing support for the return of the Parthenon sculptures. Surveys of public opinion in Britain in recent times have consistently demonstrated overwhelming support for their return and the parliaments and political leaders of many nations, including USA, Russia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Turkey and a number of European countries have joined the call for Britain to return the marbles.

The British Government should be commended for having initiated the return of the Nazi’s stolen artwork to their original owners, and more recently the return of aboriginal human remains to their original communities. We now look to the British to right one of history’s great wrongs and return the wonderful Parthenon sculptures to their home.


You can read the original article & other coverage of the subject here.

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