British Museum doubles down on Parthenon Sculptures stance - Museums Association

British Museum doubles down on Parthenon Sculptures stance

Row deepens as Greece rejects museum's claim that marbles were mainly retrieved from rubble
Parthenon Marbles
Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum has said it "firmly believes" the Parthenon Sculptures belong in London after a row over the circumstances of their removal from the Parthenon temple in Athens.

The disagreement was sparked by comments made by the British Museum's deputy director Jonathan Williams at the annual meeting of Unesco's intergovernmental committee for promoting the return of cultural property, where he asserted that most of the sculptures had been retrieved from rubble around the temple rather than being hacked off, as is commonly claimed.

His comments came days after Unesco announced that the UK Government had proposed to hold formal talks with the Greek Government about the sculptures. The UK Government maintains that any decision regarding the sculptures rests with the trustees of the British Museum.

The Greek authorities strongly rejected Williams' claim. In a statement to the Guardian, the country's culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said: “Over the years, Greek authorities and the international scientific community have demonstrated with unshakeable arguments the true events surrounding the removal of the Parthenon sculptures. Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft.”

The Greek government cites letters between Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, and Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the Italian artist who oversaw the 1801-1812 removal operation, which detail the use of marble saws during the process.

Classical archaeologist, Anthony Snodgrass, told the Guardian that there was no question that Lusieri’s first target – metopes on the southern side of the Parthenon – had been “violently detached”.


Lord Elgin sold the sculptures to the British Crown in 1816. The British Museum holds 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures, and a 247-foot section of the original frieze.

In a statement, the British Museum stood by Williams' assertion that the sculptures were mainly retrieved from the ruins around the temple and said "extending public access" was its primary focus.

The statement said: "The British Museum enjoys warm relations with Unesco, working alongside it to protect the world’s cultural heritage in Iraq and now Ukraine, safeguarding it for future generations.

"This is why the museum firmly believes that the Parthenon Sculptures in London play a vital role in demonstrating the significance of ancient Athens within the context of the ancient civilisations that shaped it - Egypt and Assyria - and later cultures that were inspired by it. We believe that extending public access is the real issue at hand."

The museum said the temple had been used for many purposes during its 2,500-year-long history, and large parts of the building had been damaged by a huge explosion in 1687.

"There will never be a ‘magic moment’ when all of the sculptures are reunited because less than 50% of the originals survive today," said the statement. "Historic drawings show how the Parthenon had changed and was surrounded by later buildings by 1800. Many of the sculptures you’ll find in British Museum were discovered in these buildings or amongst the ruins of the temple. Only limited sections of the surviving frieze, metopes and figures came from the Parthenon itself."

The statement added: "No new talks have taken place. The surviving sculptures in Athens speak of the ancient history of that great city, in London they speak to the history of the world, and to millions of visitors from across the globe. Two complementary stories in which the Parthenon Sculptures play an integral role."

Comments (1)

  1. Carolyn Green says:

    I think this argument smacks of patronising colonialism:
    “. . The surviving sculptures in Athens speak of the ancient history of that great city, in London they speak to the history of the world, and to millions of visitors from across the globe. . “.
    I know which capital I’d choose to visit in order to research Ancient Greek history.

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