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The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece

The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece

The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece
March 29
17:33 2020

During my study abroad trip to London last summer, a classmate and I wandered into the massive British Museum to act like tourists for a day. As we pushed our way through the hordes of tourists, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful set of statues in a corner of the Ancient Greece section. 

The series of statues and the nearly 250 foot frieze known as the Elgin Marbles were absolutely incredible. I was stunned to see such an extensive collection of statues and architectural elements in London, but upon looking at the placard below the statues, my awe was shot down. 

Essentially, the Elgin Marbles, or the Parthenon Marbles, are a group of statues, sculptures, inscriptions and architectural elements that were once part of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Depicting scenes from Greek mythology, the temple and surrounding Acropolis were built in the fifth century BCE and are considered triumphs in Greek architecture. 

The origin of the collection was the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, considered by historians and tourists alike to be one of the greatest architectural achievements in the world.  I stood in front of these magnificent sculptures when the realization that I was standing in a room full of stolen or dubiously obtained art from Greece hit me. 

After Brexit’s approval, news broke out that one of the many clauses included in the initial post-Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK was one alluding to the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin,” according to a report from The Times of London.

This clause comes after decades of Greek officials requesting the Elgin Marbles collection back from the British Museum, the very same ones I admired with awe. Despite various world leaders, art historians and Greek citizens calling for their return, the U.K. denied Greece’s longstanding request in February. 

Regardless of post-Brexit negotiations, the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece as a sign of goodwill after decades of arguments from all sides of the issue. The continued possession of the Elgin Marbles is a form of continued colonialism and the U.K. should return the marbles to correct some of their imperialistic wrongs of the past. 

The marbles were removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1802 under Ottoman occupation by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. After Britain’s victory against the French in the 1798 battle of the Nile, the Ottoman Empire sought the protection of Britain from the French, thus allowing the British more diplomatic and military freedoms in the region. 

Elgin was granted an official decree from Ottoman ministers allowing him to make casts of sculptures, remove building fragments and retrieve pieces with inscriptions and figures from the Parthenon, according to Christopher Hitchens’ book, “The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification.” 

The contents of this decree are highly disputed among historians, with some arguing that Elgin was only allowed to retrieve stones that had fallen on the ground, not half of the carvings and statues of the Parthenon. Others argue Elgin never received permission in the first place due to the lack of documentation of the decree even existing. 

Elgin removed approximately 50 percent of the marbles surrounding the Parthenon, according to a report from a 2018 PBS podcast. He eventually sold the statues to the British government and later presented to the British Museum in 1816, where they are housed today. 

The legality of the statues is still highly disputed between the U.K. and Greece, with Greek officials arguing that due to the Ottoman’s occupation, the decree was not valid and the Ottomans had no authority over the Parthenon, therefore the marbles should be returned to Athens. 

The British Museum argues the decree and sale of the marbles were legal and commends Elgin for “rescuing some of these examples.” The museum also argues that returning the marbles would further damage them, despite the museum damaging them during the cleaning and “preservation” process in the 1930’s by sanding down their natural color and ancient paint to appear more white. 

Greece built an interactive museum in 2009 to house the surviving statues and architecture of the Acropolis and Parthenon after claims that Greece was lacking a suitable location to display the artwork, according to a report from NPR

From a cultural context, the marbles are an essential part of Greek history and culture. Additionally, art should be appreciated and understood in its original historical and cultural contexts as opposed to being simply spoils of war and an excuse to attract millions of tourists every year. 

This case isn’t the first time artwork and cultural items have been fought over, with nations such as United States, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Kuwait and South Korea returning art, artifacts and other items “rescued” from colonized or conquered nations to their home country or ethnic/religious group. 

In 2012, the Dallas Museum of Art returned a mosaic depicting the Greek legend of Orpheus back to its home country of Turkey after museum officials found the mosaic had been removed illegally from the nation. The DMA acquired the artwork through a public auction in 1999, but after investigating the artwork’s origins further, museum officials found the mosaic had been illegally taken from the floor of an ancient Roman city located in Turkey. 

Soon after, museum officials contacted the Turkish embassy to return the mosaic and in addition, Turkey and the DMA established a formal collaboration to “promote the loaning of art and the sharing of expertise in conservation, exhibitions, education and new media,” according to D Magazine. 

Despite the goodwill and opportunities to correct colonial mistakes, critics assert that artifacts are part of the universal human history and museums illustrate the spread of knowledge and cultural understanding. Yet, museums such as the British Museum have thousands of cultural items stolen or dubiously obtained during the height of Britain’s imperial and colonial rule, such as the Rosetta Stone. In addition, the British Museum is located in a city out of reach of the cultures from which they attempt to represent culturally and historically. This assertion is also a derivative of colonial and imperialistic discourse that ancient artwork and artifacts must fit into a Western historical narrative, rather than the narrative of a foreign-occupied nation or ethnic group. 

Ask yourself this: would you want something representative of your culture, religion or ethnic identity to be taken away and housed in a museum for thousands of tourists to gawk at? Would you want an institution to claim their display of your cultural property as “universal cultural property,” when in reality, they outright stole it while using the artifact to justify their colonial dominance and imperialism after possibly decades of such systems?

I only hope that one day the Elgin Marbles will be returned to their rightful place in the Parthenon. After hundreds of years of Britain’s imperialism, it’s about time the British Museum returned their spoils of war and foster true cultural and historical understanding with Greece. 

Featured Illustration: Ryan Gossett

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Sarah Berg

Sarah Berg

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