December 14, 2006

Better Know a Controversy (with apologies to Stephen Colbert): The Elgin Marbles

Posted by: Karyn Gregory

Museums can easily find themselves steeped in edgy issues due to their status as public institutions. Since the museum field has plenty of debates raging, we felt it only proper to talk about some of them in our new series: Better Know a Controversy.

One of the oldest and most painstaking issues out there is an international cultural repatriation issue: The Elgin Marbles. Ever since the Greek government requested their return in 1983, the Marbles have found their way back into the media limelight and are certainly a hot topic these days. Just last week I was watching a repeat episode of Law & Order:SVU and there was a mention of them during an interrogation scene! If you've never heard of this 200 year old (and still going strong!) debate, you can find more about it here.

Essentially, back in 1806, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and his team removed large segments of the Parthenon in Athens, took them back to London, and later sold them to the British Museum. Elgin only had permission from the Ottomans, not the Greeks, for the removal, and so many people consider the Marbles to be stolen. However, the British Museum does not agree and has openly declared that there is no intent to return the artifacts to Athens. Honestly, it's much, much more complicated than that, but the Wiki article explains it well.

Here's where our loyal readership comes in--light up the comments and let us know your thoughts on the matter: Should the Elgin Marbles be returned or not? We always welcome a friendly debate!

- Karyn


Becky said...

I want to have a firm opinion, and yet I find myself feeling somewhat uncertain. While I think the British Museum has the legal right to retain the Marbles and keep them for the public good, there does seem to be a moral argument for returning them. What's comforting is that museums around the world are actively returning looted and otherwise illegally obtained materials. While this sticky case of the Marbles lingers around for centuries, plenty of other cases of repatriation are quietly and thankfully resolved.

shana said...

Having lived in Greece in college, I saw the Parthenon almost every day for 4 months. The presence of the acropolis in the city of Athens is more than a source of pride--it's a part of everyday life. It belongs there, like Lincoln Monument belongs in Washington, D.C.
Given the visibility of the acropolis in many parts of the city, it's humiliating that the Parthenon remains a reminder of how the Ottomans sold off Greek heritage. Once the Ottoman Empire left, Greeks destroyed mosques and other reminders of that occupation as a statement of solidarity. Now they still struggle to get back the things that were taken.
To add insult to injury, The British Museum--born of England's imperialist period--glosses the marbles over as 'everyone's heritage'. I can only imagine their reaction were Americans to hack off pieces of castles as relics of 'our' past. And am I really to believe that scrubbing marble sculptures with wire brushes is somehow less damaging than the pollution in Athens? Quick, let's tear down all our monuments and historic buildings and hide them away so they'll never deteriorate.
A hard sell, British Museum.

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