In 2013, UNESCO asked the British Museum to let it mediate a deal between it and the government of Greece, which has been calling for the return of the Elgin Marbles with ever-growing fervor for the past 30 years.
There was no answer. So in November 2014, UNESCO asked once more. Again, no response — and to make things worse, the museum lent a couple of the marbles to Russia. Finally last week, according to the AFP, the British Museum’s director, Richard Lambert, sent a letter to Athens politely announcing the trustees’ decision to “respectfully decline this request.”
Greece was livid. “We deplore the categorical refusal by the British of UNESCO’s invitation to launch a mediation process over the Parthenon sculptures housed in the British Museum,” Greek culture minister Nikos Xydakis said in a statement. “The British negativism is overwhelming, along with its lack of respect for the role of mediators.”
It’s only the latest flare-up in a dispute that has been growing, steadily but surely, over the past three decades — a quandary for cultural heritage preservationists, art historians, and governments alike that has its roots in one 19th century British earl’s quest for unique home decor.
About 200 years ago, while Lord Elgin was serving as the first British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (its ally against Napoleonic France), he was keeping a keen lookout for sculptures he might use to adorn his mansion back in Scotland, as was then the fashion. Elgin traveled to Athens’s 2,500-year-old Acropolis and saw the Parthenon, which was falling apart. It had suffered greatly through the years after first serving as Athens’s treasury — first as a Byzantine church, next as a mosque, then as a munitions storehouse in 1687, when it exploded.
The concept of “cultural heritage” wasn’t so trendy back in Elgin’s day. The Turks, who had ruled Greece since the mid-15th century, didn’t seem to care about the old stones, and neither did the local Greeks (it’s worth remembering that Britain itself didn’t realize the treasure it had in Stongehenge until the early 20th century). Elgin asked the Turkish Sultan’s permission to make molds of the figures that adorned it, but he quickly realized he could just as easily take the originals themselves. Armed with a permit from the ruler mandating that “no one meddle with [Elgin’s men’s] scaffolding or implements nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures,” he carted half of the sculptures away between 1801 and 1805.
Whatever sultanic permits Elgin may have had, you don’t have to be a lawyer to sense that his fairly dodgy tactics wouldn’t fly so well today. Even his contemporary, Lord Byron — a Romantic and lover of ruins — opposed the sacking of the Parthenon sculptures. “Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate,” he wrote in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Elgin’s defenders claim that he didn’t plan to decorate his home with the actual sculptures, but that he intended to bequeath them to a museum from the start. That process was sped along by his impending divorce, which forced him to sell the marbles to the British Museum in 1816 for £35,000 (about $4 million today) to settle his debts. To his credit, he spurned higher offers from other countries because he wanted them to be conserved in England.
Since then, the marbles have been the crown jewels of the British Museum, the one thing that anyone with an hour to spend there goes to see. In 1924, when The Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis was a young man, he visited the museum and later waxed poetic about them in his diary. “The things from the Parthenon I appreciated more than I had hoped,” he wrote. “[The figure of Artemis] is just thoughtful, unconscious of itself, serious, inhuman, and (so to speak) irrelevant — out of our world.”
But it’s impossible to visit the marbles today without feeling slightly uncomfortable about their provenance — especially in a time when looting in the Middle East has become the focus of international attention. Many individuals and organizations have been advocating for the Greek sculptures’ return, including the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, the Marbles Reunited Campaign, the Melina Mercouri Foundation, and most recently, the human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, who has been advising the Greeks on the dispute.
Proponents argue that since the marbles are all part of one larger work of art, they should be reunited with the rest at the Parthenon. They say they are a crucial and priceless piece of Greek heritage that belongs in the country. They point to the recent construction of the Acropolis Museum, a state-of-the-art institution completely capable of housing them. Most importantly, they claim the sculptures were taken illegally. Lord Elgin himself once wrote in a letter: “The Turkish government absolutely denied that the persons who had sold these marbles to me had any right to dispose of them.” For the most part, the British public seems to agree. A 2014 Yougov survey showed that only 23% of citizens think the marbles should stay in Britain.
Others think the sculptures ought to remain at the museum. It’s widely believed that had Elgin not taken the marbles, they would have been destroyed by the many conflicts that racked Greece in the 20th century. Last year, a small survey of 70 journalists and arts organizations in the UK, the Middle East, and Asia revealed that 60% believe the sculptures should stay in London. Many also say that sending the marbles back to Greece will open up a Pandora’s Box of similar requests. And, finally, England itself contends that Elgin’s removal of the marbles was perfectly legal, as he purchased them with the documented blessing of the ruling power.
“While we remain keen to cooperate with UNESCO in its work, the fact remains that the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the laws pertaining at the time and the Trustees of the British Museum have had clear legal title to the sculptures since 1816,” British Culture Minister Ed Vaizey wrote to UNESCO in another letter last week.
But the fact also remains that, whatever the technical legality of its ownership, the British Museum has a major PR problem on its hands. It’s the kind of marketing issue that, in the age of viral media, could easily blow up — especially should Greece decide to sue the museum in an international court. And the British Museum recognizes that. On its website, it describes itself as a “steward” of the marbles, keeping them “in trust for the nation and the world.” It goes on:
The sculptures from the Parthenon have come to act as a focus for Western European culture and civilization, and have found a home in a museum that grew out of the eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment,’ with its emphasis on developing a shared common culture that goes beyond national boundaries.
The museum has also shifted its strategy. As recently as December 2014, it told the Telegraph it couldn’t loan the marbles to Greece because it wasn’t sure the country would return them. But in his letter to Athens, Lambert said the museum wanted to explore collaboration with Greek institutions. “We believe that the more constructive way forward, on which we have already embarked, is to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions,” he wrote.
Only time will tell if that’s enough to satisfy Greece and all its defenders, who likely still feel that the former colonial power should just take a bow and graciously give the marbles back. The world would be truly impressed.
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