The Parthenon Sculptures
The position of the Trustees of
the British Museum
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 withinworld culture and affirming the place of Ancient Greece among the great cultures of the world.
All of the sculptures from the Parthenon are in the British Museum
This is incorrect. Around half of the sculptures from the Parthenon are now lost, destroyed over the last 2,500 years of the building’s history. The sculptures that remain are found in museums in six countries including the Louvre and the Vatican, though the majority is divided roughly equally between Athens and London.
The Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum were stolen
This is not true. Lord Elgin, the British diplomat who transported the sculptures to England, acted with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the day. Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal. Following a vote of Parliament, the British Museum was allocated funds to acquire the collection.
The Greek government has asked for a loan of the sculptures which has been turned down by the British Museum
The Trustees have never been asked for a loan of the Parthenon sculptures, only for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures to Athens.
The Trustees will consider (subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel) any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned. The simple precondition required by the Trustees before they will consider whether or not to lend an object in the collection is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the object. The Trustees frequently lend objects from the collection to museums all around the world, including Greece. In the last year alone they lent 4,400 objects to hundreds of museums worldwide.
The Trustees’ policy and their willingness to consider loans to Athens has been made clear to the Greek government, but successive Greek governments have refused to consider borrowing. This has made any meaningful discussion on the issue virtually impossible.
The British Museum argues that the sculptures in their collection should remain in London because there is nowhere to house them in Greece and that the Greek authorities cannot look after them
Neither of these claims is true, the British Museum does not argue this. The Trustees argue that the sculptures on display in London convey huge public benefit as part of the Museum’s worldwide collection. Our colleagues in Athens are, of course, fully able to conserve and preserve the material in their care and we enjoy friendly and constructive relations with them. More information on joint projects between the British Museum and Greek museum colleagues is also available online. Read more
The division of the Parthenon sculptures is a unique case. The sculptures can only be appreciated as a complete set
This is not so. Europe’s complex history has often resulted in cultural objects, such as medieval and renaissance altarpieces from one original location being divided and distributed through museums in many countries. Bringing the Parthenon sculptures back together into a unified whole is impossible – the complicated history of the Parthenon meant that already by 1800 half of the sculptures had been destroyed.
The sculptures could be reunited on the Parthenon
This is not possible. Though partially reconstructed, the Parthenon is a ruin. It is universally recognised that the sculptures that still exist could never be safely returned to the building: they are best seen and conserved in museums.
The matter could be solved by the British Museum setting up an outpost in Athens
This is not so. The Trustees of the British Museum believe that the sculptures need to continue to be seen within the context of the world collection of the British Museum in order to deepen our understanding of their significance within world cultural history. This provides the ideal complement to the display in the Acropolis Museum, where the Parthenon sculptures in Athens will be seen within the context of ancient Greek and Athenian history. Both museums together allow the fullest appreciation of the meaning and importance of the Parthenon sculptures and maximise the number of people that can appreciate them.