Lord Elgin’s parthenon sculptures: controversy, cancellation, and ongoing repatriation debate

FILE PHOTO: An employee views examples of the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes referred to in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, on display at the British Museum in London, Britain, January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

In 1801 a British nobleman named Lord Elgin took sculptures from the Parthenon temple, in Athens and brought them to England. This sparked a standing controversy surrounding the British Museums acquisition of these sculptures. Lord Elgin’s actions occurred during a time when wealthy European families often embarked on what was known as the Grand Tour, which involved visiting sites, including Greece. The Parthenon, renowned for its sculptures crafted by Athenian artist Phidias was at risk of disappearance due to the Ottoman Empires rule and damages sustained during wars.

Throughout history the condition of the Parthenon became increasingly precarious leading to instances of looting its ruins. Travelers and collectors feared that this remarkable monument would be lost forever and thus obtained artifacts from its site with permission from Ottoman authorities. Lord Elgin’s involvement began in 1799 when he became Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In 1801 armed with permission called a “firman” granted by the Ottoman Sultan Elgin started removing sculptures from the Parthenon and transporting them to England using 170 crates.

Upon his return, to Britain Lord Elgin encountered difficulties. Decided to sell these marble sculptures to the government. After negotiations it was ultimately agreed upon in 1816 that they would be acquired by the British Museum where they now stand as one of London’s attractions.

During the process of acquiring the marbles Elgin had to bear the expenses, which became a burden, for him. Parliament narrowly approved the purchase in 1816. Eventually these marbles found their place in the British Museum.

Initially the sculptures were kept in facilities until they were finally transferred to the Elgin Room in the British Museum in 1832. Despite Greece gaining independence on successive Greek governments have persistently demanded the return of the Parthenon marbles. In 2009 Athens New Acropolis Museum was built with hopes of repatriating these marbles to Greece. However, despite Greece’s efforts the British Museum has been opposed to repatriation. Considers these marbles as symbols of civilization.

Recently a planned meeting between UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was unexpectedly canceled due to disagreement regarding the Elgin Marbles. This cancellation has added complexity to negotiations especially considering controversy surrounding King Charles’s choice of tie resembling the Greece flag. Downing Street did not provide reasons for this cancellation which has raised questions about its impact on discussions.

The debate around returning the Elgin Marbles continues as Greece persists with its calls for repatriation. Progress has been made through talks, between George Osborne (the chair of British Museum) and Greek prime minister indicating agreement.

However, there are still challenges to overcome, such as limitations on the disposal of items from the collection of the British Museums. Although there is some thought being given to temporarily lending them back to Greece, finding a solution to this disagreement remains uncertain. The outcome of these negotiations will undoubtedly shape discussions around restitution and preservation of heritage within museums.

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