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Arguments for & against the return of the Elgin Marbles

A summary of the key arguments / points on both sides of the Parthenon Marbles debate.

From:
The First Post [1]

Should Britain return the Elgin Marbles?
FIRST POSTED FEBRUARY 13, 2009

THE ARGUMENTS FOR

Cultural treasures from ancient civilisations belong in the places they come from. Museums in Sweden, Germany, America and the Vatican have already acknowledged this and returned items taken from the Acropolis. The British museum should follow suit and put an end to more than two centuries of bad feeling in Greece.

Since 1975 Greece has been carefully restoring the Acropolis. Athens now undoubtedly has the facilities to look after the sculptures properly – the specially designed New Acropolis Museum would display the marbles exactly as they appeared on the original temple.

The marbles have suffered considerable damage while in London. In the 19th century, pollution seriously harmed the sculptures and the British Museum’s attempts to clean them, using sandpaper, chisels and acid, also caused irreparable damage.

It is still doubtful whether Lord Elgin was ever truly granted permission to take the marbles. The existing English translation of the 1801 document supposedly signed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire has often been denounced as a fake. Furthermore, even if it is genuine, the royal decree gives permission mainly “to examine and view, and also to copy the figures remaining there”. So it is unlikely that the Sultan ever thought that Elgin would actually remove entire frescos and sculptures.

THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST

If all restoration demands were met, many of the world’s greatest museums would be emptied of their trademark exhibits. The British museum thinks it best to house the Elgin Marbles in “an international context where cultures can be compared and contrasted across time and place”.

Even if the treasures were returned to Athens, many more of the original sculptures are lost forever, meaning the set will never be complete.

The British protected the marbles from being damaged during the Greek war of independence between 1821 and 1833 when the Parthenon was used as an Ottoman munitions store and subsequently attacked. By and large, the marbles have been better looked after in the specialist Duveen Gallery than they would have been in highly-polluted Athens.

The British Museum’s legal charter states clearly that the institution cannot legally return items from its collection: “The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963).”

Before Elgin took the marbles he gained a royal decree from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire saying that he could do so. While the original document is lost, a version translated into Italian and then into English says: “when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.”