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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?
The UK Government has turned down a Greek request for the temporary return of the disputed Elgin Marbles in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
The Greek Government had written to Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell asking for the return of the antiquities, officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed.
Known in Greece as the Parthenon sculptures, they date from between 447 and 432 BC, are now housed in the British Museum in London.
They were removed from Greece more than 200 years ago by British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin.
Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
When will the more colonially-minded Brits realise that they don't have an empire any more? They should just grow up and realise that the Parthenon marbles are just as "at home" in the British Museum as a deep-sea bass is in the Sahara. The Parthenon marbles (as the name suggests) belong in the Parthenon - they are part of a whole structure, and were only removed and sold by people who had no rights to it anyway. For the UK to hang on to them and for people to claim that the Brits have some kind of rights to them (as the receivers of stolen goods, presumably) is to cling desperately to the past. Oh yes, Egypt should have the mummies back for the same reason. Perhaps their place in the British Museum could be taken by stuffed colonials, as an indication of how the country used to be.
They should be returned to Greece and her people in order to celebrate the return of the Olympic Games to its spiritual home. Forget the tit-for-tat arguments of whose culture developed whose. The issue at stake is that the sculptures should be enjoyed by as many people from around the world as possible and with the Olympic Bandwagon in Town many people from cultures far and wide will be able to see these historic items - send them back!
Euan Gray, UK
I recently visited the British Museum and was indeed impressed by both the venue and the excellent displays. But it is with some sadness that I realised there is nothing British about the contents of the museum. It is now no more than a reminder of the era when Britain plundered the world of its treasures. I accept that if it wasn't for institutions like the British Museum in London, or the Altes Museum in Berlin, some of these fascinating artefacts may have been lost forever - it was after all the use of the Parthenon as a munitions dump that was responsible for its destruction. True conservation demands that we should regard ourselves as no more than safe-keepers until the treasures can safely be returned to their rightful places. I for one would much rather see the marbles in Athens, just as I felt viewing the Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle was a better experience than seeing it somewhere in Westminster.
Since when does an occupier of another nation have the right to sell off that nation's cultural heritage? That's what this comes down to. I can't believe some people in here will actually tell me that the sculptures were legally bought. That would be like the Germans in WWII selling the top of the Eiffel Tower to the Spanish ambassador and the Spaniards claiming that they legally purchased it!
We should retain the Elgin Marbles. We stole them, they're ours. Possession is nine tenths of the law after all. You don't hear Egypt bleating on about "Ooh, give us back our mummies" do you. No.
The way I see it, Greece relies on its former splendour to give the country an anchor today. Whereas for the UK, although our days as a major power maybe over, our contribution to the world in terms of our scientists, art, seats of learning, music industry and peace keeping still remains strong.
Therefore we "need" the marbles less than Greece does and on that basis it would seem equitable to return them either on an indefinite loan or outright.
Of course they should be returned to Greece, Lord Elgin did not find them lying on the floor he actually cut them from the walls and in doing so damaged the Parthenon. England should give them back to be housed in the new museum in Athens, it seems rather childish to hold on to them.
Please spare us the favour when you say that the Parthenon marbles would not now exist had it not been for the British. I would think that similarly your language, civilisation, and any form of western culture would not exist had it not been for the Greeks, but I don't see us claiming everything.
The marbles were not the Turks to sell, or for Elgin to take, I believe it is only fair that they should be returned.
As for the argument that we cannot take care of them, (obviously you must think that these would be the first ancient artifacts that we have to take care off), I would like to reming you that we have had civilisation 5000 years before you Britons who were living in caves.
We do not deny your progress since, why do you deny ours over the past 200years?
I am glad that some of the commentators have figured out the real reason behind Britain's reluctance to return the marbles to their rightful home. Apart from a persistent colonial mentality among some of those who are responsible for looking after cultural artefacts, the British Museum must be quite worried about the potential for claims from other countries that were looted during the British Empire. Can we (Indians) please have some of the Crown Jewels back? Besides, I'm sure the Greeks could not care for it worse than the British Museum, considering that the area where the marbles are exhibited has been regularly used for corporate parties.
For the Empire-apologists among you: there is no doubt that without the Empire, a number of these artefacts would not have been cared for at a time when most cultures did not give much priority to them. However, this is 2001 and surely one must have the courage and intelligence to realise that the world has changed.
Today's Greeks have conveniently forgotten their own imperial heritage: the Parthenon was built with money taken from other "Greek" states enslaved by Athens during the 5th century BC! Why not send the marbles to the cities of Western Turkey that were taxed to pay for them? The Elgin marbles are an easy target because the British are so obsessed with post-imperial guilt. Forget it. Every country built its heritage on the conquest of others - Greece is no exception and should not be so hypocritical.
The Elgin marbles were legitimately purchased from the administrators of Greece, the Ottoman Turks. Therefore, if Greece wants them back it should pay the cost of removal and transportation plus substantial compensation for loss and to cover the cost of maintenance over the years.
The very fact that Greece is prepared to damage the frieze by borrowing it for the Olympic Games suggests that it is better left where it is.
As an English man with a Greek girlfriend I think I have a pretty good understanding of the situation. And I have to agree that the majority of points made on both sides are very valid.
The marbles were not looted but were in fact rescued from possible destruction at the hands of the Turks. Now they no longer need our protection and as such also have a valid place back in their original home. However, I choose to look at this situation not as a diplomatic problem but as an opportunity. The British and the Greeks share a deep interest and love for these stones and this can be the basis of a cultural relationship that can embrace so much more. Imagine if you will the amazing exhibitions that could be brought to this country and to Greece, if we were to share our great art treasures in a special cultural relationship. Instead of arguing about who 'owns' the marbles let's celebrate their history that both of our cultures had a hand in creating and let our combined love for them bring us together not set us apart.
The English government should have the decency to recognise that the Parthenon marbles were stolen from where they rightfully belong, that they were damaged when removed and later inappropriately "preserved" by experts. Legalistic arguments about the manner in which the marbles were taken and racist comments (of the sort that the Greeks cannot take care of the marbles or that they are not related to the Ancient Greeks) indicate residual colonialist attitudes.
The 'return them because they are Greek' argument is nonsense. Museums and private collections all round the world are full of foreign art and artefacts (including British ones). Some of them were purchased, some were borrowed, some were recovered by archaeological expeditions (and often saved from ruin) and others were simply stolen (primarily during war). Very little, if any, of the art in the British Museum falls into the latter category and the Elgin Marbles certainly don't.
I believe that the Parthenon sculptures must be returned to Greece, even if only for the period in which the Olympic Games will be held. It must be given to the Greeks the pleasure to admire the masterpieces of their ancestors. The Marbles stood for about 2300 years in their original position - only to be savagely cut apart by Elgin in the name of England's glory.
Ok, so the British do harp on about the empire. However, if it weren't for the empire would these treasures and others like it be in museums today? It appears The Elgin Marbles are now part of British and Greek heritage.
Britain, probably more than any other nation on Earth, has shown a desire and ability to preserve antiquities from around the world. Stop the self-flagellation and 'mea culpas'. Be proud that the UK has done this great service to mankind. Had the Elgin Marbles and other treasures been left in the countries of origin, they would no longer exist or would be in a tragic state of neglect. Britain did not steal these items - she has been a caretaker. Get your facts straight!
Everybody has a right to his history, even if they are just a couple of carved stones. I'm sure the people of Britain (if they were asked) would agree with the return. Although democracy might have not arrived in those boxes from Athens...
It does not matter what was negotiated two centuries ago. The rulers of the past remain in the past. Return the marbles back to their homeland.
Thirdly, it is also not true to say that the Greeks are unable to care for them in a proper manner, since they have long proposed to construct a state of the art (and, more importantly, naturally lit) museum to house both the Marbles and other ancient relics from the current restoration of the Parthenon.
Perhaps the greatest worry for the British Museum
and no doubt other British establishments
is the precedent that the return of the
Parthenon marbles will set. After all
it is a ridiculous question to pose.
Clearly the statues are Greek and it is
therefore their right to have them.
Yet what happens if the trend was to continue
at the British museum - there wouldn't be
much else left to see would there?
The idea that it would set a precedent and open the floodgates to the return of other things is rubbish. The recent example of the return of an aboriginal skull to Australia didn't have that effect.
Same thing, only a different product.
I seem to recall that Athens was an independent city-state at the time the temple was built, certainly not part of any unified country called 'Greece'. Should the Greek state collapse and an independent Athens re-emerge then I guess there might be some legitimacy to the request to return the statues (providing that they still have the title deeds somewhere).
British museums are full of treasures stolen and looted during the country's imperialistic grip on under-developed nations.
It is time to make amends.
The only fair solution is to charge an international body such as Unesco to carry out a review of all the contents of all the world's museums, to determine what gets returned, and to whom. But Unesco suffers from a funding crisis, and so do many museums. So who will pay for the 'fair' solution? Probably no-one. So we are left with ad hoc and arbitrary measures or the status quo. I'd go with the status quo.
Michael Franks, England
NO, please no. I visited the Acropolis three time last year and discovered how poorly the Greeks care for their treasures. The best place for the Elgin Marbles is in the British Museum, where million of people obtain (for free) an outstanding educational experience.
If the British Museum returned all artefacts that have been stolen or looted, it would be empty. This is the only reason they are not returning the Parthenon Marbles.
...And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles.
There is a Michael Angelo David.
There is a Da Vinci Venus.
There is a Praxitelles Hermes.
There is a Turner "Fishermen at Sea".
There are no Elgin Marbles!
The words "stolen" and "looted" are fairly emotive. And also probably wrong. When Elgin acquired the marbles he did so at a time when the Turkish occupying forces were using the Acropolis as a defensive point. The beautiful temple of Athena Nike perched on the spur next to the entrance was dismantled for a gun emplacement and some of the marble statuary was being ground up to make lime for cement. In that context it is possible to believe that had Elgin not "looted" the marbles we would not have them today. They were acquired legally by the standards of the time so it is unfair to apply modern values to old events. If we are to return the marbles then it should be done as a grand gesture with (as one other writer mentioned) accurate copies held in the UK for others to see.
Frank Fraser, Scotland
I am fed up hearing about this. The marbles have been removed in an underhand fashion, they are patently not ours, the Greeks will love and cherish them, so why don't we give them back? Wouldn't be anything to do with the fact that the British museum must be uneasy about setting off and avalanche of claims for all the other artefacts of a similar status?
I see the marbles are about equally split between Athens and London, so it makes sense that all of them should be in one place - London. After all, Athens has the Pantheon, or most of it! Since, by definition, every museum and gallery of note in the world has something from outside its domain, a general policy to return such items to their original "owners" would be very awkward. Why stop at items? What about territory? Perhaps France should surrender Calais and, come to think of it, most of itself to England. And why shouldn't America be returned to the Indians? Now there's a thought!
Why return the Stone of Scone to Scotland if it is better preserved or viewed in UK, as many have argued? Because it corrects a historic wrong! I remember from my English Criminal Law years ago that taking away something which belonging to another with the intent to deprive permanently" amounts to theft. Alternatively, "handling stolen goods". Choose!
The UK Government has lost a supreme opportunity to show the world an example of real decency and fair play.
Matters of legal ownership are for courts to decide. If we set new precedents consider the possible applications. Most great violins came from Italy. Shouldn't they all be sent back as national treasures? Shouldn't we obtain the German people's permission to play Bach, Mozart etc. works? Cultural creations have no geographic ownership - they belong to all mankind.
The return of the Elgin Marbles depends on moral as well as legal aspects. Most people are saying that legally we do not realistically have the right to them, and morally I feel very strongly that they belong in Greece.
I find the Greek demands for the "return" of these marbles to be completely unfounded. First of all, the marbles were not taken from "Greece" because there was no such thing at the time. Thus, they cannot be "returned". Britain is under no legal obligation to do so. On the "moral" front, present-day Greeks cannot claim to have anything more to do with the glorious ancients that anyone else.
I believe that the forthcoming Olympic Games in Athens provide the UK with the unique opportunity/ excuse to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, where they belong and are part of. Please stop using the feeble argument that "more people can see them at the British Museum". If that was the case, let us send the Marbles, as well as any other museum piece to China, where more than 5 billion people can visit them.
They should go back, we can have good copies made for the British Museum. Copies do not detract from the original - take the Parthenon replica in Nashville, USA, absolutely stunning (judging from the website). Original artefacts should be returned to and remain in their country of origin if it is safe for them to do so.
Despite the fact that Greece as a nation has given YOU so many things - such as democracy, language, knowledge etc - it appears that some of you in the 21st century do not want to learn and wish to remain/ act like barbarians, what a pity!
The Elgin Marbles belong to Greece - not only in terms of propriety but also her heritage. Being so, they should be where they belong, representing the glorious past of her history, and therefore the UK should not view them as a relic to be kept in her museum but should return them to their meaningful origin.
Helena Mapanzure, UK
The problem is not these specific treasures - it is policy itself which is in question. If we return these treasures, it brings into question all others and whether they should be returned. Are we ready and, more to the point, do we have the money to do that?
When you say "taken" by the British ambassador I take that means stolen. Of course they should go back to Greece as they were not ours in the first place.
What would the Brits say if Greece refused to give back the stones from Stonehenge. Ridiculous, isn't it? Greece doesn't rule any more, but neither does Britannia.
Michael Clarke, UK
I think the marbles should be returned to Greece ASAP. I have seen them a number of times and I have never been remotely impressed by them. As to housing them in a suitable museum, nothing can make up for the centuries of neglect the marbles received at the hands of the Byzantines and Turks. They are weathered pieces of rock of no use to man or beast. Get rid of them.
Mr Venezilos would do better to concentrate on the issue of the Parthenon itself, being slowly but unceasingly destroyed by Greek motor pollution, than on the friezes acquired by Lord Elgin when the state of Greece didn't actually exist.
1. The marbles were bought in good faith
2. They will be better preserved in this country
3. If there is a case for returning ancient monuments etc to their places of origin, the world's museums would be very bare!
No they should not be returned - they are not even that famous. Until today I thought they were actual marbles. Anyway, other countries have stolen loads of stuff off us and they don't have to give it back, why should we??
It is high time these priceless treasures were returned to their rightful home. Why not fill the British Museum with British treasures?
It's a fair swap.....we gave you Prince Phillip!
Most definitely, give them back the marbles and I wager that they will be so grateful that they will give us their country which we fought for and helped retrieve from the Ottomans. Please grow up.
Return the marbles and everything else that has been taken from tombs, palazzos, dig sites etc. Saving priceless artefacts does not require them to be moved to another country. Help locals build a museum for them and support the research into their cultural heritage. Hoarding riches and valuables from other countries is mere greed and goes well with the 'Rule Britannia' mentality!
Of course they should. Along with a great many other items of booty stolen from numerous countries around the globe. We can hardly sit upon the moral high ground and castigate various oppressive regimes existing around the world today whilst we continue to hoard treasures that quite clearly belong to others.
Without a doubt. They were not the Ottoman's to give nor Elgin's to take. The removal of these sculptures amounts to pillage/looting and they should be returned.
22 Jun 01 | Arts
Greece steps up marbles fight
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