The Elgin Marbles
By Izzy Turner
The Parthenon marbles, or otherwise called the Elgin marbles, are a collection of 5th century classical Greek sculptures, originally situated on the Parthenon in Athens. They are thought to be the work of the ancient artist Phidias and illustrate scenes from Greek mythology. They are remarkable for their artistic skill in capturing realistic human flesh, fluid drapery and lifelike movement. But however beautiful and serene these marbles may appear to be, they remain at the centre of a debate that has lasted ever since they arrived in London in 1801.
But how could works of art that were created centuries ago be at the centre of such a heated and current controversy? The man responsible for such a large acquisition was Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by a love of ancient art and the fear that the Ottoman Empire would not take appropriate care of them, he managed to obtain a license to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon. The dubious nature of the method of acquiring these sculptures was almost immediately recognised, as Lord Byron, amongst others, called him a vandal. But they were also an instant success amongst those who came to see them. They were openly displayed for the public benefit, and artists and spectators alike marvelled at the artistic skill in capturing such naturalistic forms. It resulted in a renewed interest in the classical Greek style and massively influenced the artistic trends of the time.
Yet the line between legitimately acquiring an object and unlawful pillaging is often blurred, which has resulted in debates over where the sculptures should be placed. Should they remain in London where they can be seen by millions for free, in an environment specially designed to preserve them as well as mimic their original setting? Or should they be returned to Greece where they originated from, and so would be placed in the right cultural environment, aiding a better understanding of classical Greek culture as a whole?
Since its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece has fought to regain the right for the marbles to be returned to Athens. There is little legal challenge that can be mounted, as permission was granted by the ruling government at the time. But their reasons centre on being able to appreciate them as a whole united work of art, rather than scattered around the world. They could then be shown in the city where they were intended to be, and have a deep connection to. It can be linked with the debate over to what extent today should museums be acknowledging their colonial past. During the British Empire, curiosities were collected from around the world and brought back to museums and collections. As we look back to the atrocities that were committed during colonial times, should the repatriation of stolen goods be part of righting such wrongs?
But should the marbles really be returned to Greece just because that’s where they came from? National treasures from every country are scattered around the globe. It is the nature of globalisation that objects from different countries end up somewhere else. What if every country decided that they wanted every item in a museum that originated from their country to be returned. Museums would be stripped bare and we would miss out on learning from different cultures and seeing the connections that cross national boundaries. The marbles could never be returned to the Parthenon itself and instead would be housed in the Acropolis museum, so they can be seen to be just as removed from their original setting as they are in London.
When visiting the marbles in the British Museum, the accompanying text panels clearly state the institutions position on the marbles. They believe that the sculptures are part of a shared global heritage, which the museum clearly illustrates in their vast collection of objects from every corner of the globe. It affirms the place of ancient Greece amongst the great cultures of the world and places Greece in a global context. But it also overwhelmingly proves that museums seemingly full of ancient culture are by no means exempt from our current political controversies. The museum is not a dead space but has the potential to be a vastly contentious arena where contemporary anxieties are continuously expressed.