In June 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum while in London with my family. While there, my father and I entered a room that he would later describe as “an entire room dedicated to thievery.” The room that he spoke of was the Duveen Gallery, which houses the famous, or rather infamous, Elgin Marbles. These marble statues taken from the Parthenon in Athens have been a subject of controversy ever since their arrival in Britain nearly two centuries ago. And I’m talking about them because the two-hundred year anniversary of their purchase by the British government is next month, on June 7.
The statues are named after Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman government in Greece and the patron of the excavation. Elgin’s original plan was to create casts and drawings of the sculptures, which stood in or around the Parthenon and other temple structures. At the time, the Acropolis served as a fort for the Ottomans, so Elgin had to obtain a decree from the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III, in order to gain access to the temple complex. The original document has been lost, however, an Italian translation made for the artists from Naples hired for the excavation still survives. The problem with this Italian copy is that the language used in the translation is inconsistent with the lexicography used by the Ottoman court for such decrees. Despite the fact that he intended to create copies and drawings of the statues, Elgin soon began to remove many of the statues from the Acropolis with the intention on bringing them back to Britain, where he would sell them to the British government. Elgin was offered large sums of money for the purchase of the collection from European elite, including Napoleon. Elgin finished excavation and brought the marbles to London in 1812.
Being that I’ve seen the statues myself, I have mixed feelings toward this issue. On one hand, it’s a good thing that Elgin took the marbles from Greece, or else many people including myself probably would never have been able to see them up close. The statues have been credited with sparking an interest in Classical Greece in Britain, and they have inspired some great artists to create truly great works, most famously John Keats wrote his famous sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” in 1817. However, Elgin’s actions might qualify as looting. Ever since the statues’ arrival in Britain, Elgin and the British government have received a large amount of criticism. One of the earliest detractors was Lord Byron, who was renowned for his Hellenophilia. He eloquently expressed his opinion about the marbles in his poem ‘Child Harold’s Pilgrimage’, saying, “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed / By British hands, which it had best behoved / To guard those relics, ne’er to be restored.” Other prominent Brits have said that the removal of the statues from the Acropolis did more damage than the artillery barrages by the Venetians against the Ottomans.
Ever since Greece has been a sovereign state, its government has petitioned the British government for the return of the statues to their country of origin. The British government has claimed that Elgin obtained legal permission from the Ottoman authorities to do what he did, and that the Parthenon statues are an essential part of the collection of the British Museum. So should Britain return the statues to Athens, it would set a precedent for other nations to ask for the return of its treasures, which would probably lead to the emptying of not just the British Museum but the other great museums in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The campaign to return the marbles to Greece is only part of a long process administered by the Greek government to return the missing pieces of the Acropolis structures to their land of origin. The Swedish government and the Vatican have already returned their pieces of statuary, while institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the University of Heidelberg in Germany have followed suit. Despite all of this, and the fact that the majority of the British people are in favor of the return of the statues to Athens, the British government remains defiant.
This upcoming June 7 marks the two-hundred year anniversary of the British government’s purchase of the Elgin Marbles. Many in support of repatriation have dubbed June 7, 2016 as the Black Anniversary. To close this with the words of Alexis Mantheakis, the chairman of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee, “The British have never given anything back, be it colonies or artifacts, without pressure. To ignore that fact is to undermine the chances of any success in the campaign for the return of the Parthenon sculptures.”