Who owns the Parthenon sculptures?

Ancient Greeks made them, Ottomans captured them, Venetians blew them up, and the British took them away.

Phidias(?), Parthenon sculptures, frieze: 438-432 B.C.E., pediment: c. 438-432 B.C.E. and metopes: c. 447-32 B.C.E., an ARCHES video. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in London at the British Museum, standing in a gallery devoted to the sculpture of the Parthenon.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] This is a gallery that was designed to house these sculptures, which arrived at the British Museum in the early 19th century. Now, we’re looking at some of the most revered sculpture in all of Western art.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] These sculptures were seen as the High Classical style that for hundreds of years we believed we could only hope to re-achieve. These sculptures and the building that it came from, the Parthenon, are more than 2,000 years old, but the controversy of how these sculptures ended up in London is more than 200 years old.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] What we’re looking at are sculptures that are divorced from the building that they came from, the Parthenon.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] But they were integral to it, and it’s impossible to divorce the meaning of these sculptures from their original context.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] Let’s spend a minute looking at one of the panels from the frieze of the Parthenon and why these sculptures and this classical moment of ancient Greece have been so revered in Western art. The sculptures on the frieze depict a procession, mostly of horses and riders.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Look at the naturalism here. The artists have been examining the anatomy of the nude male, but also of the horse.

[1:16] Look at the way in which the man’s thigh bulges out as it presses against the horse, but you can see the concavity of the hip bone. Look at the way that the artist has carefully depicted the twisting of the body. The legs are moving forward, but the chest turns to face us.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] We can see the rib cage, we can see the muscles in the abdomen, the muscles in the shoulders and the arms, that love of anatomy that we know from ancient Greek art. Whereas the horse on the right rears up and has a sense of passion and energy, the human figures have a calm nobility.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] After the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power. France had been expanding its territory, but under Napoleon, it begins a campaign to conquer much of Europe.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] It’s against this background that the sculpture in this room is taken from Athens and makes its way to London. The other important context here is the interest in ancient Greek and Roman antiquities that just explodes in the 18th century.

[2:17] You have Napoleon not only conquering territories, but bringing scholars with him to help him identify important works of art, important monuments, that he brings back to France to fill the new Musée Napoleon, which becomes the Louvre Museum. So you have this competition among European powers for the great works of classical antiquity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] The man responsible for bringing these sculptures from Athens to London, Lord Elgin, was a Scottish nobleman. He received an extremely important diplomatic mission. He became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] He became ambassador at a critical moment, when the British had just won a decisive battle in Egypt. The balance of power shifted away from France.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] For the Ottomans, the French were out, and the British were in. Elgin was the primary representative of the British Crown, which gave him tremendous power. From the beginning, Elgin imagined that he could help develop the arts of Britain.

Dr. Harris: [3:19] What better way to do that than to furnish the British public with examples of this great moment in Western sculpture, the sculptures from the Parthenon? His first idea was to create copies, to make molds and to have artists draw. His motivation was certainly personal in terms of decorating his home in the antique style, but it was also generous. It was also educational.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] He asked the British government for funding to help support this artistic endeavor. They declined, but Elgin went ahead anyway. He hired a team that he sent to Athens.

[3:53] The building had a long, complex history. It was built as a temple to the goddess Athena, then it had been turned into a church, and eventually it had been turned into a mosque. The Ottomans also stored gunpowder there. When they were attacked by the Venetians, the building exploded.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Leaving debris across the Acropolis. When Elgin’s team wanted to begin their work, they encountered some problems from the local Ottoman authorities. They asked Elgin, back in Constantinople, to secure for them a firman, or a permit, which would allow them to do the work on the Acropolis.

[4:29] The very first firman, or permit, doesn’t survive, but the second firman has come down to us in translation. It describes what Elgin’s men were allowed to do. It says…

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] They were allowed to draw, and they were allowed to cast. They were allowed to erect scaffolding.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] And they were allowed to excavate, but the critical passage of this firman, or this permit, reads, “No one should meddle with their scaffolding or implements, nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” It’s that last phrase that reads somewhat ambiguously.

[5:10] What happens is Elgin’s men see an opportunity, through cajoling, through bribery, through using the power of Elgin’s office to extend the interpretation of this firman enough to allow them to take sculpture from the Parthenon itself.

Dr. Zucker: [5:30] The act of removing the sculpture was necessarily an act of destruction.

Dr. Harris: [5:34] This is a difficult and expensive endeavor, and Elgin is laying out his own money to do this.

Dr. Zucker: [5:40] In fact, he’s borrowing to be able to afford this project.

Dr. Harris: [5:43] He took 247 of the 524 feet of the frieze, he took 15 metopes out of 92, and he took 17 sculptures from the pediment. Now, we’re just talking about sculptures from the Parthenon. There were many other things that he took.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] By this time he was in deep debt, and he offered to sell the sculptures to the British government.

Dr. Harris: [6:05] He basically had no choice. Even storing them was enormously expensive.

Dr. Zucker: [6:10] The British government convened a parliamentary commission to investigate the circumstances of the acquisition, and to determine the quality of the sculpture, and to settle on a price.

Dr. Harris: [6:20] Ultimately the government did decide that the sculptures were acquired legally, and they paid Elgin 35,000 pounds. Less than half of what he estimated his own costs to be.

Dr. Zucker: [6:30] From the very beginning, there was real criticism leveled against Elgin for removing the sculptures from Greece, and for the destruction that that necessarily caused.

Dr. Harris: [6:39] Soon after the arrival of the Elgin marbles here in Britain, Greece finally achieves independence from the Ottoman Empire. And these sculptures, the Parthenon itself, and the buildings on the Acropolis become a symbol of national identity for the Greeks.

Dr. Zucker: [6:57] The Greeks asked for the marbles back.

Dr. Harris: [6:59] Where does that leave us today? The argument that Elgin’s actions were legal?

Dr. Zucker: [7:04] Although his critics state that, in fact, he exceeded his legal authority, there’s also the argument that is persuasive for many, that Elgin, although doing damage to the building and to any of the sculptures, ultimately preserved the sculptures.

Dr. Harris: [7:17] Before Elgin got there, the French were taking sculptures from the Parthenon. You have not only the French taking things, you have tourists who were picking things up off the Acropolis, or buying things from local inhabitants. Everyone wanted a piece of the monuments on the Acropolis.

Dr. Zucker: [7:35] The counter-argument there is strong also. Elgin actually destroyed the temple in part to remove the sculptures. The sculptures themselves suffered. A number of cases were exposed to seawater, and the British Museum does not have an unblemished role in protecting the sculptures either. In the early 20th century, they were responsible for an overzealous cleaning.

Dr. Harris: [7:54] There’s also another argument that’s often made, that if the marbles were sent back it would have a ripple effect.

[8:01] So many of the objects that are in encyclopedic museums in the West, like the Louvre, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like the British Museum, would also need to be sent back to their place of origin.

Dr. Zucker: [8:13] The Greeks have built a beautiful modern museum, designed especially to house these objects.

Dr. Harris: [8:18] We can finally have the opportunity to see them all together.

Dr. Zucker: [8:22] If they were returned, we would also see them closer to their original context. We could look out those magnificent glass windows to the Acropolis itself, to see these objects in that brilliant Mediterranean sunlight.

Dr. Harris: [8:34] Another critical argument made for keeping the sculptures here is that the British Museum is a universal museum.

Dr. Zucker: [8:41] Here it’s possible to compare ancient Greek art with ancient Assyrian art, with ancient Egyptian art, with art from East Asia, with art from Africa, and there is real benefit to that.

Dr. Harris: [8:51] You could say that the collections of the British Museum promote tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. That we understand the objects in the British Museum as being owned by humanity broadly.

Dr. Zucker: [9:04] Except that it just happens to be in the capital of one of the world’s great former empires.

Dr. Harris: [9:09] And an empire that committed violent acts against its colonies. And while the Greeks make the argument that the sculptures are a central part of Greek identity, there are those that argue that the Greeks of ancient Athens are completely different Greeks than the Greeks of the modern era.

Dr. Zucker: [9:28] The Parthenon is distinct, and it’s different in part because it’s not only deeply important to the Greeks, it has become deeply important to American culture, to British culture, to French culture, to a global culture.

[9:41] What the ancient Greeks did in Athens in the 5th century has had the most profound impact on modern society, that this culture has been embraced universally. The classical art historian archaeologist Mary Beard puts this beautifully.

Dr. Harris: [9:55] She wrote, “The debate that surrounds the Elgin marbles forces us to face the unanswerable question of who can and should own the monument. Can a single monument act as a symbol both of nationhood and of world culture?”

[10:11] How do we reconcile the universal meaning of these sculptures, the meaning that we’ve given them, that these sculptures stand for democracy?

Dr. Zucker: [10:23] And for the nobility of humankind.

Dr. Harris: [10:26] How do we balance that with the fact that it was indeed the Greeks who made this incredible contribution to Western civilization?

[10:36] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id = “82032880 @ N00” tags = “ParthenonFrieze”]

More Smarthistory images …

Read more about The Parthenon

Read more about The Parthenon’s sculptures

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Who owns the Parthenon sculptures?," in Smarthistory, March 16, 2018, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/who-owns-the-parthenon-sculptures-2/.