The Parthenon Marbles: London or Athens?

15th February 2017

News, Student news, Alumni news

Should they stay or should they go? Join the discussion ahead of Wadham's Circles' Debate in March.

  • Frieze image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=137001

The sculptures of the Parthenon (the “Elgin Marbles”) are the most famous and best loved ancient Greek artefacts anywhere in the world. Purchased by the British Government in 1816, these breath-taking sculptures have delighted visitors to the British Museum for almost two centuries. But the circumstances of their removal from the Athenian acropolis by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812 remain profoundly controversial, and the Greek state has long been calling for their repatriation to Athens. The debate over the return of the Parthenon marbles raises complex questions about cultural property, international law, and the role of museums in a nation’s cultural life.

From Lord Byron to Stephen Fry, the voices supporting the return of the Marbles to Greece have been powerful. International organisations such as UNESCO and the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, as well as campaign groups such as Marbles Reunited, and stars of Hollywood, such as George Clooney and Matt Damon, as well as Human Rights activists, lawyers, and the people of the arts, voiced their strong support for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. UK opinion polls in recent years agree.

They should go...

Those arguing for the Marbles' return claim moral and artistic grounds.

The main stated aim of the Greek campaign is to reunite the Parthenon sculptures around the world in order to allow visitors to better appreciate them as a whole. Presenting them in their original historical and cultural environment with the friezes shown as a single work of art would permit their "fuller understanding and interpretation". The cultural connections between the Parthenon sculptures and other western art in the British Museum could be demonstrated just as well by casts of the marbles, whereas the original context of the marbles cannot be replicated within the British Museum. There is also a strong moral case for the return of the marbles, grounded both in the questionable ethics of the original removal by Elgin (licensed by the Ottoman Turkish government, but opposed by Greeks even at the time), and in the central place of the Parthenon marbles in modern Greek cultural identity.

They should stay...

Those arguing to keep the Marbles in London claim legal right, asserting the role and function of museums.

Scholars, political leaders and British Museum spokespersons over the years have defended the retention of the Elgin Marbles by the British Museum. They assert that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world's great museums; the return of the Parthenon marbles to Athens would establish a precedent for the return of countless other artworks to their countries of origin. They also argue that the Greek intention would be to put the marbles into the Acropolis Museum in Athens, not display them in their original position on the Parthenon – what then is the difference between seeing them at a museum in Athens rather than a museum in London? The law also appears to be on the side of those who argue to keep the marbles, in that Elgin was granted permission to take them by the then government in Greece (the Ottoman state), and British law would need to be changed for the marbles to be returned.

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on? Join the discussion on our Facebook page. Wadham Circles members are invited to join the debate at the British Museum on 1 March 2017. The discussion will be chaired by Peter Thonemann (Forrest-Derow Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham). Four prominent public intellectuals will lay out their very different positions on the future of the Parthenon marbles: Professor Edith Hall (King’s College London: Wadham 1978); Professor Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge); Tiffany Jenkins (author, Keeping Their Marbles); Dominic Selwood (barrister, journalist and historian).