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Parthenon Marbles Conclusion

British Museum, Elgin Marbles

In the end Lord Elgin died bitter and in debt. The marbles survived not only their removal, the sea journey (including those at the bottom of the harbor in Kythera), and their imprisonment in the shed in Elgin's yard, but also some clumsy attempts at improving their appearance by scraping off two thousand years of history. They are still in the British Museum and have been seen by millions of people from hundreds of countries. The British government is reluctant to return them and the museum is of course reluctant to part with one of their most important treasures. Not that they don't think the Greeks deserve them but because if they did it could set a precedent that would empty museums all over the world, especially those countries whose domination during periods of history enabled them to put together these collections. This is certainly a possibility but it would also fill other museums in the countries these artifacts came from and allow local people to experience more of their own history. Isn't this just sharing the wealth?

After reading about Lord Elgin for this page I had trouble sleeping at night. Not about who owns the marbles and where they should be but about Lord Elgin himself who has been demonized and turned into a monster by Byron and then generation after generation of romantics and the Greeks themselves. It is hard for me to see Lord Elgin as a villain because he is really a tragic figure. To suffer through the illnesses, the public humiliation and dishonor, to lose his nose and his wife, to be a pauper among lords and unable to get a job that suited his talents because of his appearance is a burden few of us could bare. Then add that Lord Elgin believed with all his heart not only that he was doing the right thing but that he was doing a profoundly important deed that was raising the standards of civilization. It was his big opportunity to do something great and he expected to be considered a hero because of it. Instead there were few in his day who respected him, even though the marbles elevated the appreciation of ancient Greece among the masses and did have a profound effect on art and architecture.

The fact is that it did not really occur to Elgin and his cohorts that Greece would break free from the Ottoman empire and rightfully demand the return of the marbles just as it would be hard to imagine the American Indians breaking free from the USA, starting their own country and demanding Manhattan island. The Ottoman Empire, even though fatally weakened still had control of Greece and beyond and for all anyone knew it would stay this way forever. The fact that the marbles were so easily take-able by paying a few bribes here and there was proof that they were at risk. The only people who appreciated their value were the English and the French. Had France not been at war with Turkey they could easily be in the Louvre and we would be talking about the Fauvel marbles.

Regardless of what you believe about the right of Elgin to take the Parthenon marbles it is uncertain what would have happened to them had he not brought them back to England. They may have stayed right where they were on the Parthenon, though that seems unlikely since pieces had been removed before the arrival of Elgin's men. They may have been taken by the French as many pieces were. They may have been chipped away or hauled off by individual travelers and scattered all over the world in private collections or ornaments in people's yards and impossible to collect. They may have been ground into dust by the uneducated Turks and Greeks living in Athens. It is thanks to Lord Elgin that they are all together in one place and we all know where they are whether we want to visit them or bring them back to Greece. I believe that if they are returned to Athens there should be a sense of gratitude that Lord Elgin, by collecting them and keeping them together, made the work of bringing them back to Athens infinitely easier.

What is my opinion after all I have read and come to understand? Lord Elgin's intent was to make molds and drawings of the great works of the ancient Greeks, to bring back to England. Instead he brought back the originals. So make the drawings and the molds and send the marbles home. They have been in England long enough and for those visiting the museum I think copies will suffice. If people want to see the real thing they can come to Athens.

Matt Barrett

The story of the Parthenon Marbles is a complex and fascinating one. Read Lord Elgin and the Marbles by James St Claire. You can find ordering information through Greece In Print

For more on the Acropolis see:

Want to read more about the British and their collection of ancient artifacts in Greece?
See The Curse of Eleusis

Return to Elgin Marbles Index

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