Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum in London, is also the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a text used for our Objects of Travel class. One specific chapter focuses on the hotly debated topic of the Elgin Marbles. For those who have never heard of this debate, the Elgin marbles are structures that Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, took around 1800 from the Parthenon. He then proceeded to put these marbles on display in London, and they now find their home in the British Museum.
Other structures from the Parthenon are not only present in the British Museum, but in others such as the Musee de Louvre in Paris. Here is actually a picture of these structures that I saw in the Louvre this past weekend, the exact ones these articles refer to!
First, a bit about the marbles themselves: MacGregor and his staff seem to think that the images depicted on these structures are those of myths that represent the struggle between that of the Greeks and Persians when the Persions invaded the Greek mainland. Since the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a means of gunpowder storage in 1637, these structures were significantly damaged when an unexpected explosion occurred. It is suggested that one of Lord Elgin’s motives in removing the structures was to help restore and preserve the structures from the previous damage.
There are two sides to the story. The Greeks claim that Lord Elgin actually stole the marbles because they claim the Sultan did not officially approve Elgin’s removal of the marbles, and that this unofficial agreement from a Turkish officer did not contain an agreement to take them out of the country. (3) There is still much discord on this argument in particular. On the other hand, The British Museum uses the marbles as an argument for their stance that they play a leading role in allowing cultural identities to develop from the interconnection of sculptures and artifacts from all over the world, allowing the public (free of charge) to get a taste of the Greek culture.
An article from the British Museum website states the importance of the arrival of these marbles in London because they “regenerat[ed] interest in ancient Greek culture and influence[ed] contemporary artistic trends.” (2)
In 2007, the Greeks finished construction on a much needed new museum, the New Acropolis Museum, in an effort to prove they can care for their structures and no longer need babysitting from the British Museum. Their websites states “the new Museum offers all the amenities expected in an international museum of the 21st century.” Thanks Greece, ‘bout time you decided to catch up. (4)
I find myself agreeing with the British Museum’s side of the debate, mainly because of the aftermath that would follow if the museum were to return the marbles. Wouldn’t that then suggest that all artifacts should go back to their original homes? This would obviously leave no need for museums any longer and would lead to “a global loss of appreciation and understanding” in the words of Tristram Hunt (1).
Even if Lord Elgin did in fact steal the marbles, I think that at this point it would be more beneficial for the good of the museum industry for the marbles to stay where they’re put, so long as they’re properly preserved and given the rightful exhibition that they deserve.
An argument such as this holds such moral implications on both sides that it seems like the two countries will never quite see eye to eye. Give up the marbles and potentially give up the global connection of cultural identification that is the very foundation of museums themselves? Or live with the fact that the very artifacts the museum presents to the public eye were acquired through deception and manipulation?
The man behind the drama. Just look at that smirk!