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.
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.
3. Parthenon Sculptures in other museums
The following institutions also hold sculpture from the Parthenon:
Musée du Louvre, Paris
National Museum, Copenhagen
University Museum, Würzburg
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 Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (approximately half of what survive from antiquity) to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered.
The Trustees are convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance within world culture and affirming the place of Ancient Greece among the great cultures of the world.
The following books provide good introductions to the Parthenon and its sculptures:
Mary Beard, The Parthenon (Profile, 2002)
Brian Cook, The Elgin Marbles (British Museum Press, 1984)
Ian Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (British Museum Press, 1994)
Ian Jenkins, The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum
(British Museum Press, 2007)
Ian Jenkins, Greek Architecture and its sculpture in the British Museum
(British Museum Press, 2006)
Ian Jenkins and Kate Morton, Explore the Parthenon – an ancient Greek temple and its sculptures (British Museum Press, 2009)
William St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles
(3rd edition Oxford University Press, 1998)
These titles, and others, are available in the British Museum shop.
For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton in the Press Office
+44 (0)20 7323 8583/8522, or