What are they?
The Parthenon Sculptures are a collection of different types of marble architectural decoration from the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens. Made between 447BC and 432BC they consist of: a frieze which shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival (the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena); a series of metopes (sculpted relief panels) depicting the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos; and figures of the gods and legendary heroes from the temple's pediments. The British Museum houses 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and 247ft (75m) of the original frieze.
The Parthenon itself has a complex history. It has been a temple, a church, a mosque and is now an archaeological site. It has sustained significant damage throughout its long history, in particular as a result of an explosion while it was in use as an ammunition store in 1687; this left the Parthenon as a ruin. Around 50% of the original architectural decoration on the Parthenon is now lost, having been destroyed over many centuries in the ancient world and later. It is therefore impossible to reconstruct the monument completely or reunite it with its sculptural decoration.
It is universally recognised that the sculptures that survive are best seen and conserved in museums. In 2009, a new museum in Athens, the Acropolis Museum, was built to house the sculptures that remain in Greece alongside other treasures, providing an in-depth view of the ancient history of the Acropolis and its surrounding religious sanctuaries and civic structures.
Where are they from?
The Parthenon Sculptures are from Athens, Greece. The Parthenon was constructed in the 5th century BC, reflecting the power and dominance of the then city-state of Athens. It became a symbol for the modern nation state of Greece following independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832.
When Athens was selected as capital of the new country in 1834, most of the post-Roman period structures on the Acropolis were removed, to accommodate further archaeological exploration and to return the site to a state that reflected Greece's idealised 'Classical' past.
How did they come to the British Museum?
By the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had been the governing authority in Athens for 350 years. Lord Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and successfully petitioned the authorities to be able to draw, measure and remove figures.
He was granted a permit (firman), and between 1801 and 1805 acting under the oversight of the relevant authorities, Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon. He also obtained permission to have removed sculptural and architectural elements from other buildings on the Acropolis, namely the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia.
All of Elgin's collection of antiquities was then transported to Britain. His actions were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, prior to the sculptures entering the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament.
What has been requested?
A formal request for the permanent return to Greece of all of the Parthenon Sculptures in the Museum's collection was first made in 1983. There have been various meetings and discussions since then. Media coverage has referred to Greek government requests to borrow the sculptures, but a loan request has never been received.
The Trustees will consider any loan request for any part of the collection (subject to all our normal loan conditions). Successive Greek governments have refused to acknowledge the Trustees' title to the Parthenon Sculptures.
Status of discussions
There are no current discussions with the Greek Government on this issue.
The British Museum enjoys a good professional relationship with the Acropolis Museum, which in recent years has included scholarly workshops, staff placements and sharing knowledge over a wide range of subjects from colour on ancient sculpture to museum display and presentation.
The British Museum is wholeheartedly committed to respectful collaboration worldwide, to sharing and lending the collection, and working in partnership for the benefit of the widest possible audience. In recent years, the British Museum has lent to the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.
The British Museum's position
The Museum takes its commitment to be a world museum seriously. The collection is a unique resource to explore the richness, diversity and complexity of all human history, our shared humanity. The strength of the collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect – whether through trade, migration, conquest, conflict, or peaceful exchange.
The Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of that story and a vital element in this interconnected world collection, particularly in the way in which they convey the influences between Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman cultures. We share this collection with the widest possible public, lending objects all over the world and making images and information on over four million objects from the collection available online.
The approach of the Acropolis Museum and the British Museum are complementary: the Acropolis Museum provides an in-depth view of the ancient history of its city, the British Museum offers a sense of the wider cultural context and sustained interaction with the neighbouring civilisations of Egypt and the Near East which contributed to the unique achievements of ancient Greece.
Where else can they be seen?
Today all surviving examples of decoration from the Parthenon are found in museums; there are fragments in Paris, the Vatican, Copenhagen, Munich, Vienna and Würzburg.
Of the 50% of the original sculptures that survive, about half are in the British Museum and half in Athens.
The following books provide good introductions to the Parthenon and its sculptures:
- Tiffany Jenkins, Keeping Their Marbles. How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums - And Why They Should Stay There (Oxford University Press, 2016)
- Ian Jenkins, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art (British Museum Press, 2015)
- David Stuttard, Parthenon: Power and Politics on the Acropolis (British Museum Press, 2013)
- Charalambos Bouras, Maria Ioannidou and Ian Jenkins, Acropolis Restored (British Museum Press, 2011)
- Ian Jenkins and Kate Morton, Explore the Parthenon – an ancient Greek temple and its sculptures (British Museum Press, 2009)
- Dyfri Williams, 'Lord Elgin's firman', Journal of the History of Collections 21:1 (May 2009), 49–76.
- 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)
- Mary Beard, The Parthenon (Profile, 2002)
- William St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (3rd edition Oxford University Press, 1998)
- Ian Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (British Museum Press, 1994)
These titles, and others, are available in the British Museum Book Shop.