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Parthenon Marbles: Democracy Cannot be Frittered
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It was the 5th of December 2014, when the Director of the British Museum, Sir Richard Lambert, announced the loan of the Parthenon Marbles to Russia, in order to exhibit the artifacts in St. Petersburg. This came almost half a century after the British Museum replied to Greek pleads for the re-unification of the Parthenon, claiming that the objet d'arts could not be moved due to their condition. The Prime Minister of Greece, reacted with outrage the following day stating that the act is “provoking the Greek people.” This was not the first time in which the Greek government and the British Museum, and to an extent the British government, have clashed because of this issue.

During the 1980’s, the Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, was a member of the Greek Government that held the presidency of the Council of the European Union. She became known to the European public as the strongest advocate of the re-unification of the Parthenon Marbles, frequently speaking in support of this cause. Her actions were met with displeasure in the British Government and Museum, which stated that such rhetoric was undermining the European spirit of cooperation. The main of argument of Mercouri, and that which has caused the main disagreement between the Greek government and the British Museum, has been the way in which Britain acquired the marbles. 

In 1811, Lord Elgin, the ambassador of the United Kingdom to the Ottoman empire at the time, claimed to have received a permit from the occupying forces of Greece to remove any artifact from the Parthenon that he found in a specific excavation. Thus, from 1801 to 1811, Lord Elgin and his agents removed and frittered almost half of the surviving sculptures and marbles that made up the Parthenon, and shipped them to England, so as to incorporate them into his personal collection. Five years later, however, the British Parliament due to the historical significance of the artifacts decided to purchase them from Elgin. They were donated to the British Museum where they can be seen until today.  This is the story of the Parthenon Marbles. There have been different interpretations over time about the facts demonstrated above but, as of 2015, one thing has become more clear than ever before; the marbles should be returned to Greece.

In recent years the Greek government has persisted in the return of the artifacts, arguing that the permit given to Lord Elgin was illegal, given by an occupying force and not by a democratically elected government that represented the Greek people, that they can be exhibited in the Acropolis Museum, one of the most modern museums in all of Europe, and that the marbles presently remain without cohesion, homogeneity and historicity of the monument to which they belong. These arguments, although perfectly valid, have been heard for generations and have not moved the trustees of the British Museum nor the British government. What has changed though is the opinion of the British public.

In recent years, many opinion polls have been held among the British public in regards to the topic in hand.  In the most recent one, 37% of the British public stated that they supported the return of the marbles to Greece while only 23% stated they felt Britain should keep the artifacts.[1]

This opinion poll was held after several international organisations, including UNESCO, had joined the plea for their return. Hollywood stars, such as George Clooney, have assisted in moving the spotlights back on the issue and initiated the return of the debate on the social media. The British Museum is running out of reasons why it shouldn’t return the marbles to Greece. And that is hurting not only its global stature, but also the relationship between the UK and Greece, even if they don’t want to admit it. The time has come for the symbol of democracy to return to its birthplace. The conditions could not be better. The British people, the United Nations and the erection of one of the most modern museums in Europe all point to the same direction. The direction home.

Panos Chatzinikolaou is a student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.

[1] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/10/18/british-people-tend-want-elgin-marbles-returned/


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