What are the ‘Elgin Marbles’?
The ‘Elgin Marbles’ is a popular term that in its widest use may refer to the collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul. More specifically, and more usually, it is used to refer to those sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features that he acquired in Athens between 1801 and 1805. These objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816 and presented by Parliament to the British Museum.
The collection includes sculptures from the Parthenon, roughly half of what now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
In the nineteenth century the term ‘Elgin Marbles’ was used to describe the collection, which was housed in the Elgin Room at the British Museum, completed in 1832, where it remained until the Duveen Gallery (Room 18) was built.
Material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time. The remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.