The Parthenon in Athens was built about 447-438 BC to house an enormous statue of the goddess Athena. The temple was the crowning glory of a great programme of architectural renewal masterminded by Pericles, the leader of the Athenian democracy and it is still considered to be one of the most impressive buildings in the world.
Despite being burnt down by invading Goths in 267 A.D., conversion into a Christian church in the early sixth century and Ottoman occupation from the fifteenth century and another conversion, this time into a Mosque, it survived largely intact until 1687. By 1800 however only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.
And then along came Lord Elgin who helped himself to half of what was left.
This makes him the villainous tomb raider in the eyes of modern Greeks but what the Acropolis Museum fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Athenians themselves were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself, were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar. There was no preservation, there was no cultural value attached to the sculptures and certainly no question of restoration.
It is all very well getting irritable about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.
In justification of the non-return policy the British Museum rather provocatively points out that the statues are in fact relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state so modern Greece has no greater legitimate claim to ownership.
I think this raises an interesting point because we really have to be careful not to apply modern political boundaries to the ancient world. It is important to put things into historical context. Two hundred years ago there was no UNESCO (and if there had been Elgin would probably have been on the Board of Directors).
The classical Cambridge Scholar Professor M I Finley pointed out that “…Neither then, or at any time in the Ancient World was there a nation, a single national territory under one sovereign rule, called Greece”. If we accept this then it begins to construct a counter argument against the modern Greek claims. Even if they are a product of an ancient civilisation that happened to live in Athens they have no relevance to modern Greece.
The travel writer Lawrence Durrell considered this argument and although seemingly accepting it came to the conclusion: “Myself, I think I should have given them back and keep copies in plaster for the British Museum. For us they are a mere possession of great historic interest. For the Greeks they are a symbol, inexplicably bound up with the national struggle as an image of themselves as descendants of foreign tribes”.
I really enjoyed the Museum but what I did not like was the unbalanced narrative and the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary provocative and belligerent anti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary. I found this to be slightly offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel uncomfortable and a little unwelcome and I am certain that is not what the museum really wants.
The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the USA who were encouraged to gasp in outrage and awe that an Englishmen could have done such terrible things. I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that there is also bits of it in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum in Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seems to have been conveniently overlooked.
Let’s also not forget that there are other Ancient Greek sculptures which have been removed and are exhibited elsewhere – for example the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’, regarded as one of the great surviving masterpieces of sculpture from the Hellenistic period, which was unearthed by the French Consul to Turkey in 1883 and promptly shipped back to Paris. It remains on display at the Louvre Museum as does the ‘Venus de Milo’ discovered on the Greek island of Milos in 1820 and also spirited away to Paris in double-quick time. Should these also be returned, perhaps there is a much wider debate to be had?
There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know for sure if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, permission to work on the Acropolis and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past.
In my opinion the sculptures should be returned to Athens but let’s please acknowledge Elgin’s possible contribution in having saved these precious artefacts for posterity and for the World. A hostile approach may just be counter-productive and harden a British commitment to retain the sculptures in London and that won’t be very helpful because that would be the wrong thing to do!
Have you visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens? I would be interested in your views.