The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, which were scrubbed clean, whitened and preserved by the British Museum have created long standing international controversy. The question of whether or not the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon should now be given back to Greece, has been the subject of public discussion for decades. The complex history of the sculptures has created worldwide debate. Now in a recent YouGov poll it is thought that only 25% of the British public support the Elgin Marbles remaining in the UK. Half of the respondents to the survey published in the Times said the sculptures should be returned to Greece, with a 1/4 undecided. The marbles were again in the news this month when It was revealed that one of the figures was loaned to the Hermitage Museum in Russia.
The Parthenon in Athens was built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. The building was altered and the sculptures much damaged over the course of the centuries. The first major loss occurred around AD 500 when the Parthenon was converted into a church. When the city was under siege by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon itself was used as a gunpowder store. A huge explosion blew the roof off and destroyed a large portion of the remaining sculptures. The building has been a ruin ever since. Archaeologists worldwide are agreed that the surviving sculptures could never be re-attached to the structure.
By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens had been a part for some 350 years, acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain. The arrival of the sculptures in London had a profound effect on the European public, regenerating interest in ancient Greek culture and influencing contemporary artistic trends. These sculptures were acquired from Lord Elgin by the British Museum in 1816 following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. Since then the sculptures have all been on display to the public in the British Museum, free of entry charge.
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world-wide public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over two million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.
The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (approximately half of what survive from antiquity) to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered. The Trustees are convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance within world culture and affirming the place of Ancient Greece among the great cultures of the world.