The new politics of the Parthenon marbles
"The antiquities were 'made in and belong to Greece'" - Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
The Parthenon marbles—once (and still) known (by some) as the Elgin marbles, have been part of the collections of the British Museum since the mid-19th century. Britain’s Lord Elgin removed these sculptures from the Parthenon over a period of about 10 years in the early 19th century, in what many consider to be one of the most egregious acts of cultural destruction in human history. Having received a “permit” to gather sculpture fragments from the Acropolis (on which the ruins of the Parthenon stand), Elgin directed his crew to chisel off substantial parts of the intact frieze surrounding the ancient building for his personal collection. Even though his acts generated controversy at the time, he nevertheless was able to secure a sizable collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon for removal to England.
Following a costly divorce, Lord Elgin sold the marbles to the British government, who subsequently gave them to the British Museum, where they have remained ever since. The British Museum in London had been founded in 1753, making it the first national public museum in the world. Today, the museum houses extensive collections from ancient Egypt and Sudan, including the Rosetta Stone, which was part of the first major collections of sculptures acquired by the museum. The Elgin marbles, now known as the Parthenon sculptures, are still one of the primary attractions at the museum, even after years of controversy generated by Greece’s attempts to have them returned.
The British government (and many British citizens) have long claimed that the Parthenon marbles were better protected in the British museum than if they had remained on the Acropolis. But in recent years, as court cases seeking the return of looted artifacts by Western museums have become more commonplace, the cause of the return of the Parthenon marbles has reached many more sympathetic ears. Greece even constructed a new Acropolis Museum (with stunning views of the Acropolis and the Parthenon) with a dedicated gallery for the eventual return of the Parthenon marbles.
Now, in a political twist, a British politician is making the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece part of his campaign platform.
By Anny Shaw
The Art Newspaper
June 14, 2018
For another viewpoint, also see
By Nick Trend
June 5, 2018