Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
The Elgin Marbles are arguably one of the most recognisable of the British Museum’s exhibitions and one of the most famous pieces of Ancient Greek art. However, controversially, they are owned by the museum. There are constant calls for them to be returned to Greece, especially in the wake of Brexit. But were the articles plundered or were the British Museum merely preserving them from destruction?
The marbles were originally stored in the Parthenon, which became a target of attacks during the wars against the Ottomans, with the war against Venice in the 1600s leading to the most damage it had suffered since the time of Socrates. Due to this destruction, there were calls to ‘save’ the items of the Parthenon from further damage; this was essentially done by looting. The British ambassador for the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, removed the marbles and other items from the Parthenon which sparked huge debate and criticism in Britain. Elgin’s defence of himself, along with the Crown’s purchase of the marbles, silenced this criticism for some years. The Greek call for their return began it again. The British Museum argue that the marbles were brought to Britain with “the explicit permission of the Ottoman Empire”. Greece, on the other hand, argue that the Ottomans were an occupying force and thus, any permission granted by them is invalid. Brexit has sparked further calls for the marbles with an EU clause calling for the return of “unlawfully removed cultural objects”. Greece have even opened an Acropolis Museum in Athens with an empty room specifically for housing returned objects.
Plundered or preserved comes into debate when the arguments of both the British Museum and Greece are taken into consideration. The British deny that the marbles are stolen as Elgin believed that he was saving them from destruction and, with permission from the Ottomans, rightfully removed the marbles. It can be said that, if Elgin was indeed trying to ‘save’ these artefacts then he would have taken more care on the passage; which saw some of the marbles ending up on the sea floor. Furthermore, Greece argues that the Turks who granted Elgin permission were not a force acting for the will of the people and thus, for Britain to still hold the marbles after Greek’s independence is to uphold colonial wrongdoings.
The Elgin Marbles are just one facet of Britain’s colonial exploitation, which they now deny as being just that. The marbles were supposedly ‘given’ by an Empire to an Empire and thus, cannot be justifiably kept. The term ‘elginism’ asserts the fact that the marbles are not the legal possession of Britain. The term is defined to mean “an act of cultural vandalism”. Britain’s own history is rich enough for museums not to display relics effectively stolen from other countries. Museums are much more effective and interesting when focused on their own history. A fantastic museum is the DDR museum in Berlin which focuses on life in East Berlin. This museum, due to its interactive nature – and lack of looting – provides the perfect immersion necessary to make a museum enjoyable. If Britain focused on providing a history of itself, rather than holding onto relics of Empire, then controversies like the marbles could be avoided.