August 27, 2004
Prompted by the attention on Greece & Athens brought about by the Olympics, many papers have carried articles about the Elgin Marbles & Greece’s campaign to have them returned.
Posted on Fri, Aug. 27, 2004
The Greeks still want their Elgin marbles back
By MATTHEW SCHOFIELD
Knight Ridder Newspapers
ATHENS – Aggelos Papandropoulos points to the east pediment of the Parthenon ruins, one of the man-made wonders of the world, and by far the most enduring symbol of his country.
“There is much that is missing from here that is very beautiful,” the historical preservationist explains. “It is the politicians who have to bring back what is missing. I merely work here. But there is much missing, and it is very beautiful.”
As these Olympics close, many Greek officials admit they were deeply hurt by the absence of certain faces they’d expected to return for the games. But this has nothing to do with some of the sparse crowds the world saw on television.
Instead, they’re referring to a series of statues, one of the world’s most famous collections, now known as the Elgin Marbles. Those statues now reside in the British Museum in London. It has been 200 years since the 90 pieces were ripped away from the marble structure sitting atop the sacred rock, or Acropolis, in the center of Athens. And in that time the fight has remained very simple: Greece wants the marble statues back. The British Museum doesn’t want to return them.
“The British argument stands on nothing,” Greek archeologist Vasso Pliatisika says angrily. “They say they are right to keep our most important cultural symbols? There is nothing more important to Greeks than getting them back.”
She points out that the museum collection also includes a one-of-a-kind panel for a nearby monument, the lack of which totally changes the experience for visitors, and they have not even attempted to recover it.
“Do we have Stonehenge?” she said. “Of course not. Antiquities must stay in their homes. I do not understand their thinking.”
The British Museum’s position rests on an 1816 ruling in the House of Commons that the pieces were legally acquired.
A museum spokesman wearily explains the situation, before quickly hanging up: “Yes, they’re here, and no, the board doesn’t intend to give them back.”
Also, the museum takes credit for saving the statues by preserving them while much of the Parthenon has fallen into ruins in the past 200 years. In addition, the museum position states that, “The British Museum aims to make the sculptures from the Parthenon accessible to and understood by the widest audience.” They note that the marbles belong not only to Greece, but also to the world as priceless pieces of art.
Greek Minister of Communications Theodoros Roussopoulos said many of his countrymen find that argument not only untrue, but insulting.
“If you look around our city, I think you’ll see we have managed to preserve a few things,” he said. “And, I cannot imagine a more appropriate setting for display than here, in the place of their birth.”
There is little debate left on how the statues came to leave the Parthenon, built 2,500 years ago as a tribute to the goddess Athena. And the story sounds like one of the great Greek tragedies. Lord Elgin, an aristocrat and former British officer, arrived in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1799 as a British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which had occupied Athens for several hundred years at the time.
While making plans for building a new home, Lord Elgin (referred to in Greek reports simply as “Elgin”) was advised by his decorator that, since he was in a unique position to get favors from the Ottoman Empire (relations with Britain were excellent after being allies in a recent war) he should see if he’d be allowed to make plaster casts of the marble statues adorning the Parthenon.
The request was granted, in itself a surprise, as access to the sacred place was jealously guarded. A high-ranking official, the incoming Grand Vizier, gave him a letter of introduction allowing him to make the casts, erect scaffolding around the Parthenon and excavate around the foundation looking for lost statues (a few of which he might actually keep).
Once at work, he realized that with a few well-placed bribes, he could take home the actual statues. His workers used hammers, chisels and saws to rip away half the famous frieze – a relief statue panel depicting a traditional parade in honor of Athena that wrapped around the outside of an interior column row, pieces of more than half the statues in the pediment, and a quarter of the metopes, or small statues around the exterior.
In doing so, they smashed a few cornices, hacked a column in half and shattered at least one of the statues.
When finally boxed and shipped (the first ship sank, causing a two-year delay as Greek divers recovered the marbles from the sea floor) to England, Lord Elgin needed money and couldn’t build quite the home he’d hoped for. After a debate in Parliament about whether they’d been legally obtained, they were bought and placed in the museum for public display, into perpetuity.
In the years since, scholars studying the permission he received have noted that it specifically forbade him from taking anything off the structure.
And, in recent years, many British people (in one poll, 92 percent) and groups have sprung up questioning whether it might not be better to return what once looks to have been stolen.
As Robert W. Blackie, 60, of Cornwall, England, noted while walking around the monument in amazement Friday: “Look, they’re marvelous, but it’s pretty clear we didn’t have the right to take them in the first place. What we’re doing, still holding on after 200 years, I’ll never understand.”
Eleni Korka, who is in charge of the Greek department fighting for what they call “the re-unification of the marbles,” says she thinks she knows why they’re holding on.
“They are among the world’s most important pieces of art, such things are not easily let go,” she said, adding that recently leaked museum documents indicate they are now employing “stalling tactics,” hoping to hold on as long as they can.
She added that the British Museum is not alone in possessing antiquities that might, morally, be better returned to their source. Many of the world’s great museums have similar questions hanging over parts of their collections. There are more of the original Babylon structures in Berlin than Iraq, for instance.
Korka’s department prepared slick brochures, showing the marbles reunited. Elgin removed heads, torsos, whatever he wanted, for his collection, leaving the bits he didn’t want behind. The brochure puts the bodies back together photographically. It asks if the world would stand by while works by Da Vinci and Rembrandt suffered “violent dismemberment.” And, it states, “A monument with such universal brilliance as the Parthenon can only exist or be registered in the world collective memory as a whole.”
Still, Korka has decided that re-stating moral and legal arguments will do little good. Instead, patience and cooperation are needed. Athens is now building a new museum, intended to display much from archeological sites in need of preservation.
The new museum is being built at the foot of the Acropolis, and designed with the idea that visitors, from anywhere inside, will have a view of the monument above. It is expected to be finished by 2006. He hopes the British Museum will join the Greeks as a partner in a new display.
“We had hoped to see some old, familiar faces for the games,” Korka said. “Now, we will turn our attention to this autumn, and then winter, and on until the museum opens, when I cannot imagine they would not feel a need to be a part of this new gift to mankind.
“It may take a little longer, but the Parthenon is 2,500 years old. Waiting a few more years will not destroy it.”
- A plea for the Marbles to be returned to the Parthenon : December 24, 2007
- New Zealand parliament urges Britain to return Elgin Marbles : May 31, 2007
- Swede returns marble to Acropolis : November 12, 2006
- Greece urges gesture on Elgin Marbles : August 16, 2004
- Greece repeats demands for return of Elgin Marbles : September 1, 2004
- Did Greece fail to protect the Elgin Marbles? : January 15, 2004
- Select committee findings on the Elgin Marbles : June 16, 2007
- Lecture at Simon Fraser university : February 25, 2006