June 16, 2007

Select committee findings on the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 1:56 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The findings of the Select Committee enquiryCaring for our Collections” make brief reference to the Elgin Marbles. The relevant sections are copied below. Previous positions are re-stated, but here we now have it in writing, that the decision is definitely one to be determined by the trustees & not the government, despite attempts by the trustees to imply that it is not their decision.

British Parliament website


The Elgin Marbles

135. Any inquiry concerned with the issue of disposals by museums is bound to attract some representations about the future of the Elgin Marbles. The term “Elgin Marbles” is a convenient shorthand for the Parthenon sculptures, which were brought to this country from Greece by Lord Elgin nearly 200 years ago and are now in the British Museum. Some parts of the sculptures remain in Athens, while others are displayed in the Louvre and other museums round the world. Shortly before our visit to Greece we went to see the Elgin Marbles and, while we were in Athens, we were shown the sculptures displayed in the Acropolis Museum, including a small part of a foot which had recently been reattached to a sculpture after being returned to Athens from a German university. Work was being done on the Parthenon itself, to remove parts which are still attached to the temple. We were also shown round the impressive New Acropolis Museum, which is being built on a site at the foot of the Acropolis hill to house all the archaeological finds from the Acropolis, and which will replace the rather small museum which stands on the rock of the Acropolis. Our hosts explained that the Parthenon sculptures from the old museum and those now being taken from the Parthenon would be displayed on the top floor of the new museum. Only original marbles would be displayed there, not casts, and gaps would be left to show where parts were missing. During our discussions with Mr Voulgarakis, the Greek Minister for Culture, and other representatives of the Greek cultural sector we heard many references to the special place of the Parthenon and its sculptures in the hearts of the Greeks. In 2000, our predecessor considered the arguments advanced by the British Museum and others in support of the case that the marbles should remain where they are and those of the Greek government for a change in location. It did not advocate any change to the present status of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum.

136. When Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, gave oral evidence, he said that the Trustees of the Museum believed that the Elgin Marbles played an important part in the survey of cultural achievements of humanity. He pointed out that the Parthenon as it once was cannot be reconstructed, that “it is a ruined building and a very large part of the sculpture is now destroyed”. He thought that the “world public benefit” was greater under the present arrangements.

137. In April 2007, the Trustees formally restated their position, saying that they had always made clear that they could not contemplate the removal of all the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, even for a short period of time. They said that they frequently lent objects from the collection to museums all round the world, but that they had never received a normal loan request for any of the Parthenon sculptures. Successive Greek governments had always sought the permanent removal of all the sculptures to Athens, and the Trustees did not foresee a situation where they could possibly accede to such a request.

138. We were moved by the passion expressed by our Greek hosts and we acknowledge the special place which the Parthenon holds in the Greek national identity. We recognise the strength of feeling both for and against returning the Elgin Marbles. However, we note that it is not proposed to restore the Parthenon to its original glory, bringing together all the fragmented parts, wherever they might now be. We congratulate the British Museum on their efforts to ensure that the Marbles are accessible to both the public and researchers from around the world. We also recognise their argument that the display of the Marbles in the Museum adds to the understanding of the influence and spread of culture between civilisations. We note that the British Museum has made casts of the sculptures available to the Acropolis Museum and are disappointed that it appears that visitors to the Acropolis and its new museum will not be able to enjoy these. We note that the decision as to whether the originals should be returned remains one for the Trustees of the British Museum.


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