When Athens’s shiny new Acropolis Museum opened a decade ago visitors could see the sculptured decorations of the Parthenon on display in their entirely for the first time since the 19th century. The frieze – which depicts some 360 human and divine figures and more than 250 animals following a procession at a great religious festival – and wraps around the top floor of this gallery.
But sadly not all the sections of the Elgin Marbles on display are original. The British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Lord Elgin obtained permission from his hosts to remove half of the then surviving marble stones. They were loaded onto ships from around 1801 and later sold to the British Museum, where they have been on display to the public since 1817.
To the Greeks the sculptures are the ‘Parthenon Stones’, not the Elgin Marbles, and should be returned to Athens. The nearby Parthenon – which was built some 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena – on the top of the Acropolis remains a long-term renovation project. Visitors are kept some distance away from the main structure, but many argue that now the Acropolis Museum is now complete there is a natural home for them to return.
But despite long-term campaigning by high profile figures in Greece, the British Museum is reluctant to return them – despite disputes by several Greek governments that the institution’s trustees have a legal right to the sculptures. “Millions of visitors admire the beauty of the sculptures each year – free of charge,” the British Museum notes on its website. “They also gain insights into how ancient Greece influenced and was influenced by the other civilisations that it encountered.”
“The Trustees remain convinced that the current division [with the Acropolis Museum] allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of ancient Greece,” the British Museum adds. Given these statements it doesn’t seem like the Elgin Marbles will be returned to Athens anytime soon.