Does the modern world want everything in its own country, where visitors must travel if they want to learn the culture?

28 November 2023, 15:36 | Updated: 28 November 2023, 15:40

No 10 is embroiled in a deepening row with Athens over the Elgin marbles
No 10 is embroiled in a deepening row with Athens over the Elgin marbles. Picture: Alamy

By Dominic Selwood

Since the 1970s, whenever the leaders of Greece and Britain assemble around a table, the subject of the Elgin Marbles comes up. So what are they? Why are they also called the Parthenon Sculptures? And why do they matter?

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What are the Elgin Marbles?

In the fifth century BC, Athens had beaten off the Persians and was feeling triumphant. The city’s leader, Perikles, celebrated with a vast new building programme. Controversially, he paid for it by pilfering money he was supposed to be safeguarding for the Delian League, which was a mutual defence bloc of Greek city states. So by no means all Greeks were happy to see Athens’s new buildings.

Among Perikles’s new monuments was the Parthenon temple on the rock of the Acropolis. It was dedicated – like the city – to Athena, and decorated with sculptures. Since coming to Britain in the early 1800s, they have been venerated by leading artists as some of the most breathtakingly lifelike sculptures ever to be cut from stone.

What happened to the sculptures over time?

As the centuries passed, the Parthenon suffered a great deal of damage. In the fifth century AD, the citizens of Athens smashed off many of the sculptures when they converted the Parthenon into a church and wanted to remove its idolatrous images of pagan gods and goddesses. Later, in 1456, when the city fell to the Ottoman Empire, the conquerors built a mosque and minaret inside the temple. Soon after, in 1687, a Venetian force attacking the city scored a direct strike on the temple with a mortar, which caused catastrophic damage because it was being used to store gunpowder. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Parthenon was a shattered wreck.

Why are some of the Parthenon Sculptures in Britain?

In 1800, a team of artists and plaster-casters arrived in Athens, paid for by Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin. He had engaged the artists to draw, paint and make moulds of Greek art and architecture so these could be exhibited in Britain to promote the fine arts. However, when the artists arrived, they found the Ottomans hacking the sculptures off to sell to tourists, grinding them up for mortar, and using them for rifle target practice.

Elgin therefore applied to the Ottomans for legal permission to bring some of the sculptures to England. It was granted, and so his men began removing sculptures from the temple – in broad daylight, with hundreds of local workmen – and shipping them to Britain, where they arrived between 1801 and 1815. Throughout this period, Elgin acquired further permissions and confirmations from the Ottomans to remove and ship the sculptures.

Were the Ottomans entitled to give anyone permission to remove the sculptures?

In a word, yes. They had ruled Athens for centuries and were the lawful, internationally recognized government. As such, they could dispose of the city’s property. It is a fact of history and law that countries change hands via conquest. This feels emotionally wrong to some people. But it is the way the law operates.

How did the British Museum acquire the sculptures?

Bankrupted by the cost of saving the sculptures, Elgin offered them to Parliament, which held an enquiry into whether Elgin had acquired the sculptures legally. They listened to witnesses and looked at documents, and decided he had indeed received lawful permission from the Ottomans. Parliament then purchased the sculptures from Elgin for the nation, and vested them in the trustees of the British Museum.

Did Elgin vandalise the Parthenon?

The Parthenon was a shell when Elgin’s artists arrived. It had no roof, many of the columns were destroyed, and there was a mosque and minaret built into the ruins. What stands on the Acropolis today is a result of major reconstructions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1800 the temple looked nothing like it does today after so much work. The idea Elgin attacked a pristine temple with saws and hammers is emotive and historically profoundly inaccurate.

What happened to the sculptures that were left in Athens?

When Elgin’s men arrived, half the original sculpture survived. They took one of the remaining quarters. The quarter they left was subjected to ongoing damage by the Ottomans, then in the Greek war of independence. In the twentieth century, the marble was catastrophically eaten away by acid rain. You can see this by comparing the head of a horse from Selene’s chariot in the British Museum with the two horse’s heads from the same chariot in the Acropolis Museum. The British Museum’s sculpture is alive, vivid, engaging. The two in Athens are featureless oblong shoeboxes of stone that are not recognisable as horses, or anything else. The pollution has all but destroyed the carving.

Did the British Museum damage the sculptures in the 1930s?

It is often alleged that the British Museum used abrasive cleaning techniques in the 1930s that damaged the sculptures by taking off up to three millimetres of their surface. This is wildly inaccurate. The Museum used carborundum stones and powder to rub off grime, and copped chisels – softer than marble – to scrape off black spots. The same was common practice in other museums. Greek conservators used steel chisels, which are harder than marble, to clean the Hephaesteion (a sister temple to the Parthenon) in the 1950s. The British Museum’s cleaning left no perceptible damage. No visitor today can tell which sculptures in the Elgin collection were cleaned and which were not. Recently, traces of the original bright paint has been found on many of them, demonstrating that the original surface is intact.

Would the display in the Acropolis Museum be complete if it had the sculptures in London?

This is frequently claimed, but is not true. The Acropolis Museum has casts – made by Elgin’s men – of all the sculptures in London. The gaps in the Acropolis Museum represent the sculptures that were destroyed before Elgin’s men arrived.

Does culture have nationality?

There is a wider question here. Objects have always moved around the world. For example, the world’s oldest complete Latin bible was made in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, but has been in Florence ever since. Or, in more modern times, a great deal of original Beatles memorabilia is in museums and collections around the world. Giving some of them nationality, and demanding repatriation, seems unhealthily nationalistic. The Hague Convention of 1954 notes clearly that cultural property belongs to humanity. It is a modern, slightly false premise to choose particular objects, somewhat randomly, and declare they have retrospectively acquired nationality, and must be returned to their place of origin.


Ultimately, the question is about what the twenty-first century wants from museums. Is there still support for the Enlightenments ideals that created these unique educational and research institutes? For the idea that visitors can visit a three-dimensional encyclopaedia and learn about the past in context, seeing all human creativity side by side, illustrating evolutions and connections? Or does the modern world want everything in its own country, where visitors must travel if they want to learn about that culture?

Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures?

The answer is: they are both. They began life as the Parthenon Sculptures, and will always remain the Parthenon Sculptures. However, their life in Britain since 1801 has also made them the Elgin Marbles, where they have had enormous impact. Artists and the public flocked to see them in London when they arrived, inspiring all sorts of Greek-themed crazes in Europe. One important consequence was that many young European men fell in love with Greece and went to fight for Greece in its successful war of independence against the Ottomans.

Finally, where does the debate go now?

This debate is not going away. It will be helped, though, by focus on the core issues – of legality and museums – rather than emotive inventions like the theft and cleaning myths. People in all countries love world culture. Museums are places in which it can be exhibited, contextualised, experienced firsthand, and enjoyed. We should be doing all we can to fund and protect these amazing institutions, allowing them to continue sharing their universal collections with an increasingly divided world.

Dominic Selwood is a historian and barrister. He is author of Anatomy of a Nation. A History of British Identity in 50 Documents.