1. The Issue
The British Museum, located in London, England, purchased the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, from Lord Elgin on July 11, 1816 through an Act of Parliament (1). The Parthenon marbles consist of 115 panels of frieze and 92 mesotopes of which the British Museum owns 56 panels of the frieze and 15 mesotopes. The museum also owns 17 pedimental figures, and thus houses about half of surviving sculptures of the Parthenon while the other half is in Athens (2). The legal circumstances surrounding Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles is questionable as he never obtained permission from Greece, but rather the temporary occupational government at the time- the Ottoman Empire (3). Therefore, the Greek government would like the British Museum to return the marbles so they can be placed in the new Acropolis Museum near the Parthenon, a vital part of Greek heritage. The British Museum does not want to comply as the marbles have now become a key component of their collection, and they believe themselves to be rightful and legal owner of the marbles. Furthermore, the marbles’ removal would cause the questioning of museums worldwide, and their ownership of foreign antiquities. 2. Description
The Parthenon was built after the Athenian government voted to use its surplus revenue to rebuild the temple of the warrior goddess Athena on highest point in the city, the Acropolis. It took fifteen years to build, from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C. Athens was at the height of its political power and having an artistic and intellectual renaissance, thus it is understandable that a structure like the Parthenon would have been created as a testament to the accomplishments of the Greeks. Not much is known about the arrangements for the construction, but the principle architect was a man named Iktinos, who had also designed the temple of Apollo at Bassae in Arcadia (4). The temple has a row of Doric columns on each side and a double row of porches at each end. It was made out of white Pentelic marble from Attica. There were sculptures in the triangular pediments at either end, with the statues representing the birth of Athena and her conquest of Poseidon for Attica. The 92 metopes (32 on each side and 14 at each end) are in high relief and show scenes from Greek mythology, while a 160 meter frieze in low relief show a procession to the temple at a Panathenaic festival (5). This monument was the culmination of Greek sculpture, and far surpasses the quality and quantity in decoration of any other building in the classical age. The Parthenon, while preserved by the arid climate of Athens, has had a series of damaging occupations. Beginning in the fifth century AD, the Parthenon was closed and turned into a Christian church by order of the government in Constantinople. It later passed into the hands of the French (1204AD) and the Ottoman Turks (1458AD). When the Venetians tried to overtake Athens from the Turks in 1687, a mortar bomb penetrated the roof of the Parthenon and hit the Turk’s storage of gunpowder inside (6). Extensive damage was done to the temple. In 1799 Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. It is unclear as to his intentions regarding the Parthenon when he first went to Athens. Since the Sultan was looking for Britain to protect the Ottoman Empire against the French, Elgin was able to obtain a “firman” or authorization to make casts and drawings, excavate around the building, and remove some pieces of the Parthenon (7). It is because of this vague document that Elgin removed 50 slabs, two half slabs of the frieze and 15 metopes, and sent them back to England, causing extensive damage in his removal and shipping. Lord Elgin first displayed the marbles in his London home, but after falling into debt and needing money, Elgin decided to try and sell his marbles to the British government (8). After a long debate in Parliament over whether or...
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