The Elgin Marbles: Controversy and History in Modern Day Greece

0 Comments 03 August 2015

I am sure everyone has heard about Greece. Quite like the way many watch the Kardashian’s or our PM, waiting and watching to be the first one to see their next step into disaster, many have had eyes trained on Greece.

I’ve been keeping track of a different kind of Greek disaster. Have you ever heard of the Elgin Marbles?

As a person of Greek heritage living in Australia, watching the disasters of Greece on the news, removed from them but in many ways still very involved, can be quite difficult. In a way that feels like the air is stolen from my lung’s, quite like Elgin’s Marbles was stolen from Greece. But examining history like this, allows me to feel a connection to my heritage and my culture. Greece has no shortage of rich history, in a way that influences many other countries.

Everyone wants a part of Greece, but we don’t consider if we keep on taking, there will be nothing left. Elgin’s marbles is a reflection of this dilemma.

Stolen before we were all born, the Elgin marbles are, basically, a collection of stone sculptures and architectural pieces that a man named the Seventh Lord Elgin, Thomas Bruce, collected when he was in service as an ambassador during the days of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. The objects he ‘looted’ from the Greek capital between 1801 and 1805, were particularly from the Parthenon. Elgin pretty much collected half of what was standing as the ‘Parthenon sculptures’, as they are referred to, at the time and ran off with them.

Long story short, he let people think his boss let him take these stone sculptures, and in 1816 sold the stones, after losing them in the sea for a bit, for 35 thousand British pounds.

He lost a bit of money in the sale, but this is how they ended up in the hands of the British Museum, residing in London. There were arguments about how legal it all was, but they still bought them. Elgin argued that the sculptures would be better cared for in Britain. They are still displayed by the museum now.

The Greeks were not happy about this, there is a sordid long tale of back and forth between Greece and London, debating who owns the stones, that they should be returned to Greece. The Brits claim, considering the marbles cannot be restored to the Parthenon the way it stands now, really Elgin saved them. The can now be admired by hundreds of tourists a day.

A easy way to summarise the situation is like this: You see children in a playground, there is a doll between them, it might be an exquisite doll but it is a doll. They are tearing at it, one child’s hand on one arm each of the doll. “It was mine first!” one child screeches, “Its mine now!” the other child screams. It doesn’t matter which is right anymore. All the watcher sees anymore is the children’s debate, not the gorgeous doll.

Yet the Brits do admit they haven’t been too kind to the stones, and they have received some ‘heavy handed cleaning’ over the years. How much damage there is to the stones, no one has admitted.

Greece said they would pursue a ‘diplomatic and political approach’ to return their prized sculptures, going against the advice of even famous barrister Amal Clooney, who had instead urged Greece to take Britain to the International Court of Justice. The British Museum responded with a spokesperson replying to Greece: ’oh yes we like this change of mind Greece. We look forward to working on the ‘ways in which we can together enable the whole world to see, study and enjoy the sculptures of the Parthenon.’

In 2004, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon had a chat with the BBC, noting that it is important to examine Elgin’s actions through the eyes of his time. He was only during what was ‘common’ in his time, to ‘plunder’ and ‘collect’ and Elgin was only a ‘genuine lover of art’.

The Elgin marbles were stolen by what we would call a ‘Xenio’ in Greece – a foreigner. They are not happy in their home, but over the past, many many years, it has become their home. They may have been birthed in Athen’s bosom, but they bow to a different Queen now.

(Technically, the Greek mythological goddess Athena truly owns those sculptures, the Parthenon was built to honour her. I’d say ask her where they belong but… you might not get an answer.)

The real matter to be examined here is that, art is art. It shouldn’t be hidden in some dark and dreary corner, the marbles deserve to be examined and admired by the public eye.

But Greece has a history of losing parts of their heritage, but we all know, they fight tooth and nail for what belongs to them. In a country older than this one, by a very long while, history and culture is around every corner. The birthplace of democracy, a real ‘frappe’, the Olympics, and so much more, they should strive to let everyone know what beauty was theirs, their creation.

Greek blood and sweat created those marbles, that’s for sure.

But is it possible that the Greek people have lost sight of what really matters? It could be argued the real reason the stones are deliberated on, and wish to be returned, is the value they could hold.

The Elgin marbles tell a story, of Greece’s history, of Greece’s beauty. In many ways, when you walk past the Parthenon everyday on your way to work, the way some walk past graffiti when walking through any train station in Melbourne, you start to block it out. That piece of your heritage, that gorgeous architecture, the beauty, it becomes not as special anymore. It doesn’t hold that wonder a tourist might have when laying eyes on the Elgin marbles for the first time.

The honest, but bleak, truth is when a country has to fight to reclaim all the lost parts of their heritage, when a country is being ripped apart, being able to point at something as classic as the marbles and say, ‘hey we created these, they are our history. They belong here, not to those who stole them’, holds a power.

A power to reclaim a lost heritage and ponder the questions, who truly has the power? What is really best for the stones, the children’s doll, and maybe, just maybe, could we just share and stop and stare for awhile at the beauty of these sculptures?

To the Elgin stones, may they be acknowledged and praised for years to come.


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