I just learned about the so-called “Elgin Marbles” a few days ago, and I’m fairly outraged. The British Museum, in London, has about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. How did this come about, and why is it a problem?
It came about because Greece was occupied by the Turks for about four centuries. Toward the end of that period, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the syphilitic Earl of Elgin, asked for permission to remove sculptures from the Parthenon and take them back to Britain. The brutes were using the Acropolis as a military fort at the time. The Turks granted their assent. Elgin spent over £20,000 bribing the Turks. That's around £1.4 million in today's money. The marbles are stolen property. Elgin had no right to ask for them; the Turkish Sultan had no right to let him take them. Elgin’s agents spent 12 years carrying out the heist; just 9 years later, Greece declared independence. He stole them in the nick of time!
I refuse to call them the “Elgin Marbles”. Since when do we name things after thieves?
How would the British like it if an American ambassador carted away priceless British treasures with the permission of the French occupation? They wouldn’t like it very much, I bet. There’s really no justification for it. The British Museum is insisting on keeping stolen property.
One of the many specious excuses they give for refusing to return them is that they’re worried other countries would start demanding their own treasures back. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t have obtained so much of your collection illegitimately!
At the end of the Greek war for independence, the Western powers that were Greece’s war allies, including Britain, feared the Greeks would obtain a liberal republican government. So they imposed a Bavarian monarch, some guy named Otto for fuck’s sake, a teenager for crying out loud, on the Greeks! How’s that for irony? The Greek government is recognizably Western; the marbles would be well-cared-for. It’s not as if the Taliban are demanding the British Museum give them statues of Buddha to blow up. The sculptures will be honored and preserved by their legitimate owners. This is really outrageous because Greece was the cradle of civilization. Why shouldn’t they get their stuff back?
The marbles were stolen from the Parthenon. Not a Parthenon, but the Parthenon, one of the great world-historical sites. They are irreplaceable. They are priceless. They must be returned to their rightful owners. How dare Elgin engage in such vandalism, such cultural desecration? They mutilated the Parthenon and chopped up its sculptures to remove them. How dare the British Museum claim the marbles would be damaged if they were returned to Greece? They did fine for, oh, thousands of years until your Elgin came along, stole them, and mutilated them! Not by coincidence, the decay of the ruins of the Parthenon was greatly accelerated after Elgin’s butchery exposed much that had been hidden and sealed to the vagaries of the elements.
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behoved To guard those relics ne’er to be restored. Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Melina Mercouri was an Academy Award-nominated Greek actress and singer, who later became a member of the Greek Parliament, and then the Minister of Culture. She was an elegant, glamorous woman. When she was the Minister of Culture, she was invited to the Oxford Union to give a lecture; afterwards, she confronted David Wilson, then-director of the British Museum, to demand the return of the marbles. Skip ahead to the 1:30 marker:
Here is a transcript of her fiery, passionate speech at Oxford Union. The facts can’t be argued with. The extent of the injury to Greece’s living soul can’t be exaggerated.
Make some careful copies in plaster for the British Museum to display, and return the originals to the Greeks. There is no other way. Morally, they belong to Greece. Give them back.