Rightful Ownership of the Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles are a group of statues that were seized from the ruins of the Parthenon in the 19th century by the British Lord Elgin. At the time, he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and claims to have taken the sculptures back to Britain with full authorization from the Ottoman officials. In 1816, Lord Elgin sold the marbles to the British Museum, where they have been on display ever since. Although the British claim to have acted in full accordance with the law, there naturally has been questioning in the modern era as to whether or not the marbles should be returned to Greece. Currently, about half of the original statues from the Parthenon remain in Greece, most restored in the New Acropolis Museum, and the other half are on display in a variety of museums throughout the world, including the British Museum and the Louvre. Since the early 1980s, however, the Greek government has been petitioning the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, questioning their legal right to keep them. The British Museum responds to this claim by saying that these timeless pieces of art are central to all Western culture and therefore transcend cultural boundaries. They state that their museum is intended to “tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world” and therefore, they have a right to display these important pieces of history (http://www.britishmuseum.org/gr/debate.html) They also reference back to legislation created by Parliament in 1753 which states that the Trustees of the British Museum are prohibited from disposing of any artifacts and must ensure that all exhibits are maintained for “the benefit of international scholarship and the enjoyment of the general public” (http://www.greece.org/parthenon/marbles/bm.htm).

Although this debate has been going on for multiple decades now, little has been resolved. The Elgin Marbles remain in the British Museum; I saw them there last summer. Additionally, the sculptures have been in the British Museum for so long now that an argument could be made that they are now part of the museum’s history. This situation is complicated by Greece’s recent political and economic strife, causing some to question whether it is in the best interest of Western culture to return these precious pieces to an area of conflict. Do the Greeks really have an overarching claim to these pieces because of their ancestors? Or, since the Greeks were integral in the founding of all Western culture, does the British Museum have a point in saying that their significance transcends cultural boundaries?

Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon


Swindale, Ian. “The Parthenon Marbles.” Hellenic Electronic Center. Trustees of the British Museum, Marc 4 1997. Web. 19 Sep 2011. .

“The Parthenon Sculptures.” The British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum, n.d. Web. 19 Sep 2011. .

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2 Responses to Rightful Ownership of the Elgin Marbles

  1. ljhong says:

    To me, rightful ownership has always belonged to the creator (in this case, the Greeks). However, this article brought a strong argument that I hadn’t thought of before. Greek art and culture is a dominant influence in western civilization, thus rightful ownership can be with arguably any western culture. I found that argument very interesting and informative; nevertheless, the idea that British Museum keeps the Elgin Marbles based on it being there for so long doesn’t really feel like a strong argument to me. Overall, this article has opened my thoughts on rightful ownership to more than just the creator.

  2. mcbohn says:

    The concept of a unique cultural meaning for an artifact’s country of origin has been hinted at in several blog posts, and it is one that I find especially fascinating. Certainly, a piece of art that was created at one point in time in one area of the world holds a special ancestral significance for that area of the world today. However, I think employing this view to prevent the one country from displaying another country’s art is somewhat narrow minded. This view undermines the amount of outside influences on the artists during their own time (Roman artists copying Greek forms, Greeks using the Gauls and Celtic peoples as inspiration) as well as the amount of globalization that is present in the world today.

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