Team Athens or Team London?

When I went on an art history study abroad several years ago, we began our trip in Athens and traveled north, finally finishing our studies in London. It was weird to have our term begin with a trip to the Parthenon, and then have the term end with a trip to see the Parthenon statues…in the British Museum in London. Although it was fun to get close and examine details that would be difficult to see if the statues were in situ, I still couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be to see these statues in Greece, where they originated. Recently, I have been thinking about how the Elgin Marbles are a good example of how European culture claims (and repossesses) the ancient Greek culture as European heritage. (Although, arguably, ancient Greek culture has become European heritage because of the Enlightenment.)

The Parthenon statues in London, better known as the Elgin Marbles, were taken from the acropolis in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin (a British ambassador). This week’s edition of Newsweek has a great article which summarizes the displacement of the Parthenon sculptures, and also discusses the ongoing debate between the Brits and Greeks as to where the marbles belong. Understandably, the Greeks want their statues back. Part of the British argument is that there isn’t a proper facility in Greece to maintain the statues. Well, that argument will soon have less weight – the new Acropolis Museum will open to the public this month. (This museum looks really awesome too – there is a glass floor in the building to show an ancient site that was discovered during the excavation and construction of the site (see photo on left)).

I do think it has been great that the statues have been in London, since they probably would have been damaged or destroyed if they had stayed in Athens. (Although, ahem, the British “cleaning” of the statues in the 1930s was not exactly helpful.) However, with this new Acropolis Museum, I feel like it is the right time to let the Greeks enjoy and care for something that is inherently theirs. Although I realize there are a lot of problems that could happen with the transition of the statues (see the Newsweek article), I think that they should end up Greece. Really though, I’m a sucker for historical accuracy and original intent.

And if the Brits cannot compromise on that issue, I think that the statues should at least be sent to Greece on a long-term loan.

Where do you think the statues should be located? Are you Team Athens or Team London?

You can read more about the debate for/against the return of the Parthenon statues here – although the entry for returning the statues to Athens seems a little biased at present.

  • Zillah says:

    i think that it's tempting to think, "oh, of course the marbles should go back to greece, because they would be so cool!" that's what i think, at least. but what are the repercussions of such a sentiment/argument for the rest of art? should artworks be displayed only in their country of origin? should everything be returned? what about artwork that originates in a country that no longer exists? what about artwork that originates in a country that was/is involved in civil conflict or is no longer one country? should we decide based on geographical origin alone, or political origin, or cultural origin?

  • Ashley says:

    I agree with you, they should be in Athens. I remember thinking that when we were on our trip. It was cool to see them in both places, but I enjoyed the Greek art so much more in Athens than I did in London.

  • joolee says:

    Team Athens! Put 'em where they belong…would the Brits want something of Shakespeare's shipped all the way to Athens??

  • M says:

    Zillah, you bring up some good points. The Newsweek article brings up some of these ideas and mentions that the return of the Elgin Marbles would open a "Pandora's box" of problems and similar claims from other museums. And I think that's so true.

    There are a lot of problems with returning art to the countries/locations of origin. And I don't know if it art should always be returned. Ideally, like you said, it would be cool to see the marbles in its original location. And (ideally) I think that is true for most works of art (although I'm sure I could think of exceptions, but I can't at present).

    But there are a lot of things to consider with retaining/returning art, such as which country has political stability, funding for the care and maintenance of the art, etc. It really is a "Pandora's box" of sticky questions that often require subjective opinions – which is why the Brits and Greeks are constantly debating the Elgin Marbles issue.

  • E says:

    I can't believe they used wire wool to clean them. Wow. You'd think the people cleaning them would KNOW that the grooves and details were meant to be there. Perhaps they were janitors? Crazy.

    I think I'm torn on which team I belong to. I hate to see the generations of today being punished for the sins of their fathers (by having the marbles go to Athens), but at the same time, when something is rightfully yours, of course you want it back!

    At the very least, they should go on a long-term loan.

  • Kiersten says:

    This is a though issue. On the one hand, I think that the British Museum probably gets more visitors, since Britain has typically been more stable than Greece. More people have probably enjoyed seeing the sculptures there than those that would have been able to visit Greece in the past. Hopefully we're at a point where that is no longer an issue, in which case I would say that they could probably be better understood in their original context.

  • e says:

    Once a teacher told me that the UK refuses to give back the Elgin marbles until America gives back the original Winnie the Pooh (which was a gift to the US.

    This teacher may or may not have been messing with our minds. I have no documentation either way.

  • M says:

    Along these same lines, there is a post today that discusses how the Greeks recently rejected the Brit's offer to lend the statues for three months.

  • M says:

    e, I've never heard that argument about Winnie the Pooh. Ha! That raises some of the quibbles surrounding this argument to a whole new level of craziness.

    And Kiersten, I can understand your point about the British Museum receiving more visitors, which allows the statues to be enjoyed by more people. I also hope we are at a point where that is no longer an issue. Plus, I think it would be nice for Greece to get more visitors and attention.

  • M says:

    e: A quick Google search brought up this articleand this article, which both compare the situation with Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals to the Elgin Marbles debate. I don't know if there have ever been threats about keeping the marbles until the stuffed animals return (I sort of doubt it), but the comparison has definitely been made.

  • phin says:

    The Brits took them fair and square. Let them keep 'em!

    Anarchy, Anarchy!

  • rachsticle says:

    I think team London. Have you guys been to Athens? It is noisy, loud, and dirty.

  • kashurst says:

    I REALLY want to say Athens because I love historical accuracy, but…the more you move an item, even a very important, well protected item, the more chances for damage. Especially if you trade it back and forth. I don't really care who it belongs to just as long as it is SOMEWHERE to be enjoyed instead of broken. So, I guess I'm team London.

  • M says:

    Here's a post that discusses how the separation of the Parthenon marbles is a violation of the art. Interesting.

  • M says:

    Here is an interesting article that discusses how David Cameron (the current Prime Minister of Britain) rejects the call to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.