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 allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over 3.5million 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 survives from the ancient world) to be appreciated against the backdrop of 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 firmly believe that there is a positive advantage and public benefit in having the Sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.
All of the sculptures from the Parthenon are in the British Museum
This is incorrect. About half of the sculptures from the Parthenon are lost, having been destroyed over the 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 in both Athens and London. 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 by Greece, only for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures in its care 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 is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the object. In 2014 the Museum lent the pediment sculpture of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, on the anniversary of that museum’s foundation. The Trustees frequently lend objects from the collection to museums all around the world, including Greece. In 2015/16 the Museum lent 5,000 objects to hundreds of museums worldwide. The British Museum is the most generous lender in the world.
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 or to acknowledge the Trustees ownership of the Parthenon sculptures in their care. 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, and 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, preserve and display the material in their care. We admire the display in the Acropolis Museum, in which the Parthenon sculptures are complemented by casts of all of those in London and elsewhere, creating as full a picture as is now possible of the original sculptural decoration of the temple.
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 by 1800 about half of the sculptures had been lost or 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. For this reason, all the sculptures that remained on the building have now been removed to the Acropolis Museum, and replicas are now in place.
The matter could be solved by the British Museum setting up an outpost in Athens
The Trustees of the British Museum believe that there is a great public benefit to seeing the sculptures 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. 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.
UNESCO have offered to mediate on the issue but the British Museum has refused
The British Museum has a long history of collaboration with UNESCO and admires and supports its work. However, the British Museum is not a government body. The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care and to make them accessible to world audiences. The Trustees want to strengthen existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures directly between institutions, not on a government-to-government basis. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward. Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united in a shared endeavour to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy for all humanity.
More information can be found in our 2015 press release regarding the UNESCO mediation proposal.