What should we do with the Elgin Marbles?

Every now and again, some countries argue for the return of their cultural treasures from foreign museums. Greece’s PR machine keeps the matter of the Elgin marbles in the news, as an example.

This is an interesting question: should countries return cultural items to their place of origin or not?

History

The 18th century ushered in the era of the Grand Tour. Many would end up in Greece, where they would make it a point to look for the Acropolis. It was the beginning of what we now call the tourist industry and opened up foreign cultures to people who had never heard of them.

At the time, Greece was in poor shape. Ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the military abused the ancient temples and buildings. The Acropolis was a garrison; the Parthenon a mosque. Many ransacked the place for building materials, or in an effort to keep some of the artworks safe.

Athens in the Ottoman period
(Credit to Hellenic Foundation for Culture)

This was not uncommon in those days. Mark Twain once said that when he visited the Pyramids the only sound he could hear was the chipping of chisels. Closer to home, the Knights of Malta cannibalised Greek temples in Malta for marble to adorn their auberges.

The most famous of these was Lord Elgin. He was an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and spoke to the Sultan about his desire to take some of the Parthenon’s remains back to England with him. The Sultan agreed stating, “When they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.” Elgin dismantled the large frieze on the Parthenon and had 200 boxes full of marble sent back to England.

This was controversial in those days and the press was full of criticism of Elgin for what he did. The controversy lasts till today and Greece has often asked for them back.

Foreign and local culture

Statues which are part of the Elgin marbles
Photograph by Tony French / Alamy

Lord Elgin exhibited the marbles in London. By all accounts this was the talk of the town and the most popular attraction in London at the time. Bear in mind that few could travel so the sight of such splendour coupled with lavish stories of Ancient Greece must have been incredible.

The marbles are still on display in the British Museum, as they have been since 1832.

Like most museum goers, I appreciate that many items I see in a museum may be the result of plunder. In the case of the Elgin marbles we can debate whether the Ottoman Sultan had the right to give Elgar permission to take things or not. (There is also discussion about the wording and the meaning behind the Sultan’s agreement.)

The point I’m making is that viewing or supporting a museum does not mean that I approve such actions.

Viewing or supporting a museum means I appreciate culture and history.

I would argue that any collection in a museum helps bring culture to a wide(r) range of people. This can only be a good thing.

Elgin marbles

So, I ask again, should countries return cultural artefacts or not?

Not my brother’s keeper

I sympathise with the Greek point of view.

Not only did they see their cultural heritage plundered and ruined by the Ottomans, but they saw some of it given away to whomever asked. They have fragments of statues and friezes which they would love to restore, but the other parts of these statues are now in England.

That’s a shame.

But I also know the issue is much more complicated than that.

Imagine if the world had returned Syrian artefacts to Syria 20 years ago. Syria was a different country then, and they’d have treasured and welcomed the items.

And they would be dust today because of ISIS.

I know we cannot compare Greece to Syria, but I also know that I cannot predict the future.

So, once again, should items like the Elgin marbles be returned?

‘The Lamentation of Christ’ by Lucas Cranach

Leverage the future

I would love to see things back home, in their place.

Sweden leads the pack when it recently decided to give Poland back The Lamentation of Christ by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The painting had disappeared after World War II5. In 1970, Sweden bought the painting at auction.

This isn’t even a matter of plunder or theft.

But it is a matter of restoring to Poland that which is Polish.

And that is the crux of the matter.

I know I can see Maltese history in the British museum, but seeing the pre-historic temples and artefacts in situ in Malta is a different experience.

Malta can choose to lend its artefacts to foreign museums. It’s a common enough practice, and I’ve often enjoyed these exhibitions too.

But, at the least, Malta should have its own heritage at home.

And so should Greece.

Because if Greeks who cannot travel cannot experience their own culture, then what’s fair or right about that?

References

  1. How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles; Juan Pablo Sánchez; National Geographic Magazine; March/April 2017
  2. 8 facts about the Elgin Marbles; History Extra; 2015
  3. No Such Thing as the Hoo-Ha Monologues; No Such Thing as a Fish; 2015
  4. How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles; Juan Pablo Sánchez; National Geographic Magazine; March/April 2017
  5. Stockholm museum will return stolen 16th-century painting to Poland; The History Blog; 2020-06-24

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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