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, that represents 30% of the original scheme, 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.
All of the sculptures from the Parthenon are in the British Museum
Around 40% of the sculptures from the Parthenon are now irrecoverably lost, destroyed over the 2,500 years of the building’s history. Of the sculptures that remain, roughly 30% are in Athens, around 30% are on display in London and other pieces are in museums in six countries including the Louvre and the Vatican.
The Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum were stolen
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 government then funded the acquisition of the Parthenon Sculptures by the Trustees of the British Museum for the benefit of all people.
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 the Greek government, only for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures to Athens. The Trustees will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned, subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel. 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 agrees to return the object and keep it safe.
The Trustees frequently lend objects from the collection to museums all around the world, including Greece. The British Museum is the most generous lender in the world. Over 5,000 objects travelled to 335 venues in the UK and internationally in 2013–2014. The British Museum is currently lending 24 objects to two exhibitions in Athens at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. 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.
In 2002 Sir John Boyd, Chairman of the Trustees of the British Museum, wrote a letter to the Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, following their face-to-face meeting where many areas of collaboration were discussed, including the subject of the Parthenon sculptures being displayed in Athens. This letter set out to clarify the position of the Trustees following those conversations and was not, as has been suggested, a response to a formal loan request. The Greek authorities made it clear at the time, and subsequently since then, that they did not acknowledge the Trustees’ ownership of the Parthenon sculptures in their care, and therefore were not able to give the required reassurances that the objects would be safely returned, which is what the Trustees require to consider a loan request. A letter from the Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos published in the Sunday Times on 17 August 2003 confirmed the Greek government’s position ‘I have to repeat one more time that the Greek government has never acknowledged a legal title of the British Museum to the Parthenon Marbles’.
The Trustees no longer have a ‘stop list’ of objects which cannot be lent and as the current loan to the Hermitage demonstrates, the Trustees welcome the opportunity to share important and iconic objects as long as they are safe to travel and the borrower can demonstrate to the Trustees the objects will be safely displayed and returned.
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
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 conserve and preserve the material in their care to the highest international standards and we enjoy friendly and constructive relations with them. More information on joint projects between the British Museum and Greek museum colleagues can be found on the research section of the Museum’s website.
The division of the Parthenon sculptures is a unique case. The sculptures can only be appreciated as a complete set
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 roughly 40% of the sculptures had been destroyed. Nobody would now advocate for the sculptures to be installed on the Parthenon building.
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 above all conserved in museums.
The matter could be solved by the British Museum setting up an outpost in Athens
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 are seen within the specific 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. Lending the sculptures increases that number still further.