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On the Parthenon Marbles - The British Museum and the Art of Hypocrisy

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Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, at the British Museum. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Marcos Houzouris)

It is time for Great Britain to give Greece her marbles back.

Two centuries ago, an Ottoman sultan gave a British aristocrat permission to take artifacts from the Acropolis, the ancient hill which has loomed over Athens since antiquity. The aristocrat, Lord Elgin, virtually dismantled the Parthenon and stripped it of nearly half its art, shipping some of history’s most precious sculptures off to a foreign land.

A friend of mine recently visited the British Museum in London, where the marbles that Elgin took are still held today. For decades, Greece has fought for their return to Athens. For decades, Britain has refused. And the description posted on the wall of the gallery reveals the British government’s failure to understand the art in their exhibit, or the injustice of their possession. The Museum firmly defends Lord Elgin and his actions. First, the description reads, “Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering, and pollution.” It is true that there were other threats to the marbles in Greece, like the negligent Ottoman authorities and unsupervised visitors. But the British Museum’s claim that Elgin spared the sculptures from further vandalism hardly holds up since Elgin himself vandalized; he tore apart an ancient monument. It is more accurate to say that one vandal got to it before another. The Museum tells of “Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building” – as if his very removal did not make the building more ruinous.

The gallery description also insists that Elgin saved the marbles from harm, when he actually thrust them into more. One of the British ships transporting them was wrecked off the southern coast of Greece, leaving the sculptures at the bottom of the sea for two years until they were recovered. Elgin himself was taken captive by the French for three years, leaving many of the treasures in Ottoman hands while he sat in prison. The British Museum even botched an attempt to clean the artifacts in the 1930s, which former Greek Minister of Culture Elisavet Papazoe said “deformed” and “damaged (them) irreparably.”

Pericles, ancient Athens’s greatest political leader, commissioned the art on the Acropolis to inspire the unity of all of Greece. With tension among the city-states threatening peace, the monuments were a glistening testament to his vision of an undivided people. Pericles boldly used both the Athenian and Spartan column styles in the Propylaia, and lined the Parthenon’s roof with scenes recounting Panhellenic victories over foreign enemies. The great aim of the project was to capture and express an ideal through lasting, public art.

The gallery description next reads: “It is also thanks to Elgin that generations of visitors have been able to see the sculptures at eye level rather than high up on the building.” It is shocking that any museum could so brazenly ignore artistic intent. The sculptures were never meant to be viewed at eye level, but to soar above the public. “High up on the building” was exactly the point. To cast them down from their height is to subvert their intended function. None would thank a foreign nobleman for hacking pieces from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling just so tourists could stare at Adam’s pointer finger from sixty feet closer than Michelangelo intended. Dragging the upper sculptures down to eye level is not an occasion for gratitude. It counteracts the real purpose of the art: to teach from high above.

The new, state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens has a better grasp of the art it is privileged to display. There, the metopes are displayed well above eye level, and the frieze installation was built with the exact dimensions as the original.

The description in London next tells visitors: “In London and Athens the sculptures tell different and complementary stories.” One would be hard-pressed to find a Hellene who is both proud of Greece’s glorious past and content with the artifacts’ separation. The very design of the new Acropolis Museum confronts and denounces Britain’s possession of the marbles. The most emphatic example of this is the display of the Caryatids, the maidens from the south porch of the sacred Erechtheion temple. Elegant and solemn, five of the six original Caryatids tower over museum-goers. The sixth stands alone in London, isolated from her home for hundreds of years. In Athens, at the front of the display, an empty pedestal awaits her return. The incomplete exhibit reflects the tense reality: a singular artistic work torn apart. Seventeen hundred miles lie between the sixth maiden and her place among the others. This is not a case of two “complementary stories,” but a single one stretched across a continent. It can only be fully told by uniting the statues which are meant to stand together.

Next in the description one reads: “In the British Museum, they are part of a world museum, where they can be connected with other ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt, Assyria and Persia.” The original Athenian artist was well aware of his nation’s connections with other ancient civilizations; the Persians had invaded only a few decades prior. And the triumph of the Hellenes over Persia is symbolically depicted by the Parthenon’s ninety-two metopes, fifteen of which are displayed in London, apart from the rest. The ancient Athenians did not need a twenty-first century museum curator to put their lives into cultural context. They understood the context themselves.

Wheels are beginning to turn in the push to return the marbles, however. The newly elected Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has revived the discussion with both Britain and France, seeking fresh cooperation as the two hundredth anniversary of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire approaches in 2021. For the first time in years, European leaders are recognizing the marbles’ purpose and working to restore them to their full grandeur.

A basic misunderstanding underlies the British Museum’s display and possession of the Parthenon Marbles: that the artifacts are a miscellaneous collection of individual and disconnected pieces. The opposite is true. The art of the Acropolis, which Elgin recklessly scattered across Europe, was commissioned and designed to inspire the unity of all Hellenes: the triumphant coming together of peoples which destroyed each other as enemies, but dazzled the earth as allies. This vision, conceived by Pericles and alive in the Acropolis and its art, should still move us today. Its dream of harmony amidst difference should pierce the veil of complacency and time gone by. It is a dream still worth pursuing. And those stones which first spoke of it, millennia ago, should be allowed to speak with one voice, together, once again. It is time to bring the marbles home.