It was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who was responsible for taking away the sculptures that used to adorn the temples on top of the Acropolis in Athens. His name was Thomas Bruce and he was the seventh earl of Elgin (pronounced with a hard “g”) and in 1802 he received permission from the Ottoman authorities to saw off the treasures of the Parthenon in Athens and cart them away and ship them to England. You can see them today in Room 18 of the British Museum.
The British Museum today possesses about 47% of the total pieces that make up the pediments, metopes and frieze of the temple parts that they call the Parthenon Sculptures. 51% of the pieces that the rest of the world calls The Elgin Marbles are in a museum in Athens. The rest (2%) are scattered among various museums throughout Europe. If you have seen the Venus de Milo at The Louvre in Paris then you probably walked by the one frieze panel and one metope that are displayed there. The British Museum has 56 of the 97 surviving frieze panels; the Acropolis Museum of Athens has 40. Of the 64 surviving metopes the British Museum has 15 and the Acropolis Museum of Athens has 48. Of the 28 surviving pediment sculptures the British Museum has 19 and the Acropolis Museum of Athens has 9.
The torso of a particular piece of sculpture may be in London while the head may be resting in Athens many thousands of miles away. The museum has a slide presentation that shows the virtual blending of various pieces.
Greece wants their sculptures back. The United Kingdom says No. Click here to read the British Museum’s defense in keeping the Elgin Marbles.
Click here to read “A brief history of the Removal of the Parthenon Marbles” from the Greek point of view and click here to read the official Greek position on “Sculptures removed from the Parthenon.”
The controversy has been going on for more than 200 years. Click here to read about the celebrated actress Melina Mercouri and her campaign in the 1980s to bring the marbles back to Greece.
Click here to read the Memorandum plus eight appendices on the Parthenon Marbles sent by the Greek Government to the British House of Commons (all files are in pdf format and need Adobe Acrobat Reader). Appendix IV contains letters from and to Lord Elgin himself as part of the Greek Government’s argument as well as an excerpt from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Appendix III contains resolutions passed by UNESCO and the European Parliament.
Click here to read an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2009 regarding the opening of the new museum in Athens. And click here to read an article in Britain’s own Telegraph on the recent UNESCO resolution.
Other countries have claims, too: Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back. Nigeria demands the Benin Bronzes be returned. The British Museum possesses more than 24,000 items taken from the Mogao caves (including the Diamond Sutra, the oldest known printed book in the world). China wants them back. And Canada wants their British Columbian totem poles back.
The other day I came across an article in the Irish Examiner regarding Irish items in the British Museum: Click here to read the Examiner’s art editor’s somewhat tongue in cheek demand for the return of the Roovesmoor Rath ogham stones to West Cork.
All of these countries may have to wait till hell freezes over but since there is one single precedent of UK relinquishment then there is also a sliver of hope: The British Museum did send back some ashes of Aborigines (stolen in 1882 and shipped originally to the Royal College of Surgeons) to Tasmania in 2006.
The British Museum is arguably the greatest museum in the world today but of course could not remain so if they gave back all of their treasures.
In tomorrow’s posting I will show you my photos of the Elgin Marbles.