Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My thoughts on the Parthenon Marbles

The mere mention of the words "Parthenon Marbles" (also know as the Elgin Marbles) ignites a passionate debate in which everyone seems to have an opinion. I would like to share my opinions, which I'm sure many will agree with, though I know there are plenty who will think I'm wrong. The Parthenon Marbles were stolen, plain and simple. Now, before you jump to your own conclusions about my views, hear me out. The Parthenon Marbles where stolen from Greece between 1801 and 1812, and subsequently found their way to the British Museum. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when he purchased the marbles. At the time, as is the case now, the legality of that transaction raised a few questions. I feel that whether or not the sale and removal of the Parthenon Marbles was legal is a mute point after two hundred years. The marbles where taken, they now sit in the British Museum, and no amount of squabbling over the original transaction details is going to change that. My view is that the Parthenon Marbles were better off being bought/stolen. In the roughly two hundred years that have passed since their appropriation, they have been lovingly cared for in the British Museum and entertained millions of art fans from around the world. They are a cultural, historical and artistic treasure that have demanded professional care and respect. The British have taken far better care of the Parthenon Marbles than the Greeks could have.

So, what is my point? Though the British have been good stewards of the marbles, times have changed, both in Greece and around the world. Though the purchase of the Parthenon Marbles has always been suspect, the illegal trading of antiquities has gotten a lot of media coverage in the past few years, and public opinion is largely against such acts. Also, up until recently, Athens didn't really have an appropriate place exhibit and maintain the marbles. The New Acropolis Museum has changed that. And it's that museum that leads me to my conclusion. Greece now has a permanent home for the Parthenon Marbles, so there is no reason not to return them. No matter what excuses the British Museum or the British government make up, there is no good reason to keep the marbles in Britain. It's not a question of legality; every one knows that the marbles belong in Greece. The Parthenon Marbles owe their survival to Lord Elgin and the British Museum, but what they represent to Greece far outweighs any debt that is owed to Britain. The Parthenon Marbles belong in Greece not because of any law, but because when it comes down to it, it's the right thing to do.