Elgin Marbles History

 

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Debates > Elgin Marbles History

The ‘Elgin Marbles’ is a popular term that in its widest use may refer to the collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul. More specifically, and more usually, it is used to refer to those sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features that he acquired in Athens between 1801 and 1805. These objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816 and presented by Parliament to the British Museum.

The collection includes sculptures from the Parthenon, roughly half of what now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

In the nineteenth century the term ‘Elgin Marbles’ was used to describe the collection, which was housed in the Elgin Room at the British Museum, completed in 1832, where it remained until the Duveen Gallery (Room 18) was built.

Material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time. The remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.

The Parthenon Sculptures

The question of where the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon should now be displayed has long been a subject of public discussion. This page provides key information for understanding the complex history of the Parthenon and its sculpture. The main arguments of the debate are also presented here. For another view, see the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: www.culture.gr

What is the Parthenon and how did the sculptures come to London?
The Parthenon in Athens has a long and complex history. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. The building was altered and the sculptures much damaged over the course of the centuries. The first major loss occurred around AD 500 when the Parthenon was converted into a church. When the city was under siege by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon itself was used as a gunpowder store. A huge explosion blew the roof off and destroyed a large portion of the remaining sculptures. The building has been a ruin ever since. Archaeologists worldwide are agreed that the surviving sculptures could never be re-attached to the structure.

By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens had been a part for some 350 years, acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain. The arrival of the sculptures in London had a profound effect on the European public, regenerating interest in ancient Greek culture and influencing contemporary artistic trends. These sculptures were acquired from Lord Elgin by the British Museum in 1816 following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. Since then the sculptures have all been on display to the public in the British Museum, free of entry charge.

Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon
Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

Where can the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon be seen?
Sculptures surviving from the Parthenon are located in museums across Europe. The majority of the sculptures are roughly equally divided between Athens and London, while important pieces are also held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican.

1. Parthenon Sculptures in Athens

Recently the Greek authorities have been removing the sculptures from the Parthenon, work that was begun over 200 years ago by Elgin. Nearly all of the sculptures have now been removed from the building. They are displayed in the New Acropolis Museum.

2. Parthenon Sculptures in London

The sculptures in London, sometimes known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, have been on permanent public display in the British Museum since 1817, free of charge. Here they are seen by a world audience and are actively studied and researched to promote worldwide understanding of ancient Greek culture. The Museum has published the results of its research extensively. Recently, for example, new discoveries of ancient applied colour on the sculptures have been made with the application of special imaging technology.

Watch a video about preliminary results

3. Parthenon Sculptures in other museums

The following institutions also hold sculpture from the Parthenon:

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Vatican Museums

National Museum, Copenhagen

Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna

University Museum, Würzburg

Glyptothek, Munich

What has the Greek Government asked for?
Since the early 1980s Greek governments have argued for the permanent removal to Athens of all the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The Greek government has also disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. For more information on the Greek Government’s official position, see the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: www.culture.gr

What is the British Museum’s position?
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world-wide public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over two million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.The Parthenon Sculptures

The question of where the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon should now be displayed has long been a subject of public discussion. This page provides key information for understanding the complex history of the Parthenon and its sculpture. The main arguments of the debate are also presented here. For another view, see the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: www.culture.gr

What is the Parthenon and how did the sculptures come to London?
The Parthenon in Athens has a long and complex history. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. The building was altered and the sculptures much damaged over the course of the centuries. The first major loss occurred around AD 500 when the Parthenon was converted into a church. When the city was under siege by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon itself was used as a gunpowder store. A huge explosion blew the roof off and destroyed a large portion of the remaining sculptures. The building has been a ruin ever since. Archaeologists worldwide are agreed that the surviving sculptures could never be re-attached to the structure.

By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens had been a part for some 350 years, acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain. The arrival of the sculptures in London had a profound effect on the European public, regenerating interest in ancient Greek culture and influencing contemporary artistic trends. These sculptures were acquired from Lord Elgin by the British Museum in 1816 following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. Since then the sculptures have all been on display to the public in the British Museum, free of entry charge.

Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon
Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

Where can the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon be seen?
Sculptures surviving from the Parthenon are located in museums across Europe. The majority of the sculptures are roughly equally divided between Athens and London, while important pieces are also held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican.

1. Parthenon Sculptures in Athens

Recently the Greek authorities have been removing the sculptures from the Parthenon, work that was begun over 200 years ago by Elgin. Nearly all of the sculptures have now been removed from the building. They are displayed in the New Acropolis Museum.

2. Parthenon Sculptures in London

The sculptures in London, sometimes known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, have been on permanent public display in the British Museum since 1817, free of charge. Here they are seen by a world audience and are actively studied and researched to promote worldwide understanding of ancient Greek culture. The Museum has published the results of its research extensively. Recently, for example, new discoveries of ancient applied colour on the sculptures have been made with the application of special imaging technology.

Watch a video about preliminary results

3. Parthenon Sculptures in other museums

The following institutions also hold sculpture from the Parthenon:

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Vatican Museums

National Museum, Copenhagen

Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna

University Museum, Würzburg

Glyptothek, Munich

What has the Greek Government asked for?
Since the early 1980s Greek governments have argued for the permanent removal to Athens of all the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The Greek government has also disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. For more information on the Greek Government’s official position, see the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: www.culture.gr

What is the British Museum’s position?
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows a world-wide public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over two million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.

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