Monday, February 1, 2010

The "Elgin" Marbles

When selecting a header to great my blog visitors, I chose an image that reflects one of the most widely known cultural property debates: the case of the "Elgin" Marbles.

The name "Elgin Mables" is a popular term given to the ancient marbles of the Parthenon (late 5th century) that were removed between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottomon Empire. At the time, Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire and Lord Elgin is said to have received permission by the ruling government to remove the marbles and take them back to London. There, they were purchased by the British government in 1816.

However, a hot debate rages between the Greeks and the English about the rightful ownership of the marbles. In 1983, the Greek government submitted its first official request for repatriation; this request and the many that followed were denied by the British government.1 The Greek government sees the marbles as an essential part of the country's cultural patrimony. The Greeks argue that they should be presented in their historical environment and believe that the pieces were obtained unlawfully. The British government considers the acquisition to have been lawful and necessary at the time, to prevent further damage to the pieces from natural forces. In addition, the British feel that the marbles are part of the collective cultural heritage of mankind.2

Today, the Elgin Marbles can be seen at the British Musuem in London, but will that always be the case? One of the arguments made by the British is that the marbles are accessible to the public and safe in their current location, because of the British Museum's visitation and level of security. But in June 2009, the New Acropolis Museum opened its doors in Athens and now welcomes 10,000 visitors a day. On the top floor of the NAM is the Parthenon Gallery, which overlooks the ancient temple itself. Visitors can view both original marbles from the Parthenon and casts of the marbles in the British Museum. Museum president Dimitrios Pandermalis maintains, "The new museum explains the problem to the public. It's a new base for the discussion...We do not demand the return of every antiquity to the country of origin. For this one monument that is so important for the cultural history of the world, we have to find the solution to reunify all the original fragments. When you have the head of a statue and the body is 4,000 kilometers away, it's a problem."(Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2010).

What do you think? Where do the "Elgin" marbles belong? Will the successful opening of the New Acropolis Musuem and public opinion, which largely falls with the Greeks, lead to the return of the marbles someday?

1. Merryman, J.H. 1985. Thinking about the Elgin Marbles. Michigan Law Review 83(8): 1880-1923.

2. The British Museum Statement on the Elgin Marbles


  1. Greece could not only house these works, but house them well- to me, the question of ownership is clear here. But what if that weren't the case? This post raises an interesting question- if a country WOULDN'T be able to provide the same kind of care for its relic as the country that possesses it, does that matte? Hmmm.

  2. It is so sad to me that the British government has not conceded, even after Greece has taken such extreme precautions to make sure the marbles would be equally safe in their rightful home. But Kate makes an excellent point. Just because I might think I am more responsible than some parents out there doesn't mean I go around kidnapping children.

    These are clearly works that are central to Greece's heritage. Is there a petition somewhere we can sign?