The question of where the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon should be displayed has long been a subject of public discussion.
What is the Parthenon and how did the sculptures come to London?
The Parthenon in Athens has a long and complex history. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. The building was altered and the sculptures much damaged over the course of the centuries. The first major loss occurred around AD 500 when the Parthenon was converted into a church. When the city was under siege by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon itself was used as a gunpowder store. A huge explosion blew the roof off and destroyed a large portion of the remaining sculptures. The building has been a ruin ever since.
Archaeologists worldwide are agreed that the surviving sculptures could never be re-attached to the structure. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures to Britain. Their arrival in London was to make a profound impression upon western ideas of art and taste. It promoted the high regard that the European Enlightenment already had for ancient Greek civilisation.
Before they went on show at the British Museum in 1817, they were first seen from 1807 in Lord Elgin’s temporary museum. The public display of the sculptures from spring 1807 encouraged Hellenists in their love of ancient Greece while, at the same time, it inspired the Philhellene movement in its sympathy for the inhabitants of modern Greece and their struggle for independence. Since then the sculptures have always been on display to the public in the British Museum, free of charge.
Where can the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon be seen?
The majority of the sculptures are roughly equally divided between Athens and London. Important pieces are also held by other major European museums, including the Musée du Louvre in Paris, Vatican Museums, the National Museum in Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the University Museum in Würzburg, and the Glyptothek in Munich.
Parthenon Sculptures in Athens
The programme of restoration of the Acropolis monuments, begun in the 1970s, is ongoing. As part of this work, the Greek authorities removed all the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon to the Acropolis Museum. They have thus completed a process begun by Lord Elgin 200 years ago, and all the Parthenon sculptures have now become museum objects.
Parthenon Sculptures in London
The sculptures in London, sometimes known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, have been on permanent public display in the British Museum since 1817. Here they are seen by a world audience and are actively studied and researched by an international community of scholars, to promote understanding both of ancient Greek culture and its role in the cultures of the world. The Museum has published the results of its own research extensively. Recent discoveries of ancient applied colour on the sculptures have been made with the application of special imaging technology.
Parthenon sculptures in temporary exhibitions
The British Museum continues to seek new ways to study and interpret the Parthenon sculptures, and to share them as widely as possible. In this spirit, the sculpture of the rivergod Ilissos was exhibited in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, in 2014, to mark the 250th anniversary of that museum’s foundation. In 2015 the Ilissos and other Parthenon sculptures were featured in the British Museum’s special exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. Here they were shown for the first time together with masterpieces borrowed from other museums. In 2018 some of the Parthenon sculptures were displayed alongside works by Auguste Rodin in a special exhibition, showing how the radical sculptor was influenced by these ancient masterpieces. Initiatives such as this aim to illuminate not only the classical Greek achievement, but also its impact on the world.
What has the Greek Government asked for?
Since the early 1980s, Greek governments have argued for the permanent removal to Athens of all the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The Greek government has also disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures.
What is the British Museum’s position?
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history more than two million years ago until the present day. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of the collection allows the world’s public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the connections between them.
Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Parthenon sculptures are an important representation of the culture of ancient Athens. Millions of visitors from around the world admire the beauty of the sculptures each year – free of charge. They also gain insights into how ancient Greece influenced and was influenced by the other civilisations it encountered.
The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures in Athens to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. This display does not alter the view of the Trustees of the British Museum that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. The Trustees remain convinced that the current locations of the Parthenon sculptures allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of ancient Greece. More about the Parthenon and its history can be found at theacropolismuseum.gr.
The following books provide good introductions to the Parthenon and its sculptures:
- The Parthenon Frieze, Ian Jenkins (British Museum Press, 1994)
- Lord Elgin and the Marbles, William St Clair (3rd edition Oxford University Press, 1998)
- The Parthenon, Mary Beard (Profile, 2002)
- Greek Architecture and its sculpture in the British Museum, Ian Jenkins (British Museum Press, 2006)
- The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, Ian Jenkins (British Museum Press, 2007)
- Explore the Parthenon – an ancient Greek temple and its sculptures, Ian Jenkins and Kate Morton (British Museum Press, 2009)
- Acropolis Restored, Charalambos Bouras, Maria Ioannidou and Ian Jenkins (British Museum Press, 2011)
- Parthenon: Power and Politics on the Acropolis, David Stuttard (British Museum Press, 2013)
- Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Ian Jenkins (British Museum Press, 2015)
These titles, and others, are available in the British Museum shop.