events, Museum Curation, Representation

Returning the Parthenon Marbles: A Conversation with Baroness Chakrabarti

by Kirsty Warner

The question ‘should the UK return colonial artefacts?’ has been a consistent and widely debated topic. However, with large institutions such as the Ethnological Museum, Berlin and the Smithsonian Institution returning objects, there has been a growing pressure for western museums to return colonial objects accessioned to their collections. One of the most contested objects is the Parthenon Marbles.

What are the Parthenon Marbles?

The marbles were originally part of multiple buildings on the Athenian Acropolis, in Athens, including the Temple of the Parthenon. They depict Greek heroism, gods and goddesses, and Greek civilisation. The marbles are an important piece of Greek heritage, culture and identity – the Parthenon Marbles were made in Greece, by Greeks, for Greeks.

Image 1. A reconstruction of the Parthenon showing the location of one of the pediments. Illustration by Kate Morton.
Image 2. An illustration showing the location of the pediment, metopes and frieze on the Parthenon.
Image 3. East Pediment, Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. By Wally Gobetz (2006)

Both available on the British Museums Blog, ‘An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures


How did the Parthenon Marbles get to the British Museum?

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The Parthenon was 2,250-years-old when Elgin arrived in Greece and had suffered significant damage from conversions, occupation and looting. Nevertheless, Elgin recognised the significance of the building and asked the Sublime Porte (the government of the Ottoman Empire) for permission to have artists copy, measure and sketch some of the sculptures and architectural features as a means of preservation.

Elgin claimed that when permission was granted for the aforementioned request, it also allowed for the removal of statues from the Parthenon. Between 1801 and 1812, Elgin removed almost 50% of the Parthenon sculptures that remained and shipped them to England. There was an outcry over Elgin’s actions, particularly by Lord Byron. Nevertheless, a select committee of Parliament was established to examine the sculptures and their value to Britain. In 1816 the British Parliament’s purchased the marbles for £350,000, and they have since been on display in the British Museum.

Image 1. Archibald Archer, The Temporary Elgin Room constructed to display the Parthenon sculptures, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors.
Oil painting on canvas, 1819.
Image 2. The Parthenon sculptures as they were displayed in 1923 at the British Museum. This is now Room 17. Photo by Donald Macbeth.
Both available on the British Museums Blog, ‘An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures

Why are the Parthenon Marbles so controversial?

Permission

Permission is one reason why the removal of the Parthenon Marbles is so controversial. When the marbles were taken, Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, so the Ottomans were in charge of the Acropolis. However, in 1832, Greece became an independent country and noted that it was not fair that the British were allowed to remove the sculptures from an important monument when the Ottomans controlled Greece. Since 1832, Greece has consistently requested the return of the marbles.

Preservation

One interpretation of Eglin’s motivations for removing the Parthenon marbles is based on the argument that the Parthenon was very damaged, and that by removing the marbles from Greece their beauty and significance could be preserved. However, Elgin damaged the temple by taking the marbles. The marbles have suffered considerable damage while in London. In the 19th century, pollution seriously harmed the sculptures and the British Museum’s attempts to clean them, using sandpaper, chisels and acid, also caused irreparable damage

Legality

The British Museum’s legal charter states clearly that the institution cannot legally return items from its collection: “The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963).” However other museums with similar legal frameworks have acknowledged this and returned items taken from the Acropolis.

The conversation…

Undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries, Department of History and the Centre for British Politics and Government, were invited to take part in conversation with The Rt Hon. Baroness Chakrabarti CBE, to discuss the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles.

Baroness Chakrabarti, a member of the House of Lords, recently joined The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM). Over a 50 minute session students were provided with a brief introduction to the Parthenon Marbles, before being given an opportunity to engage in the restitution debate.

Comments from this closed session focused on the way that object narratives and displays are presented within the British Museum and highlighted the need to the conversations such as these to be more publicly available – so as to engage more people in the restitution debate.

Continuing the conversation…

To continue the conversation publicly The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and partners would like to invite all Greeks, members of the public, and lovers of the classics to mark the 13th anniversary of the Acropolis Museum with a call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to be celebrated peacefully and joyously at the British Museum on Saturday, 18th of June 2022, at 4 pm.

‘The Parthenon Sculptures are part of one integral work of art, and the centrepiece of Greek heritage. Requesting their return was among the very first actions of the Greek government and people upon gaining independence some 200 years ago. To mark the 13th anniversary of the Acropolis Museum it is fitting we add our voices to the ever-increasing calls to reunify the halves of the Parthenon Sculptures in London with those in Athens.’

Please bring friends, family and supporters along with Greek flags, banners and other cultural icons to celebrate Greek culture on this important day.

More details about the event can be found here.

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