River God of Athens 8x10 JPG

In 1798 Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed as Ambassador to the court of the Sultan of Turkey. Prior to his departure to take up the post, he had approached the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Acropolis. The British government said no. At that time, the Acropolis was an Ottoman fort.

In 1801, supposedly with the permission of the Sultan, Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures at his own expense. The work was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of £74,240, quite a large sum. Lord Elgin began negotiations for the sale of the collection to the British Museum in 1811. Again, the government said no.

However, a revival in interest in classical Greece prompted the House of Commons to finally make an offer for the sculptures, at less than half of the cost Lord Elgin had sustained in obtaining them, and in 1816 the deal was struck. It was controversial from the beginning. Lord Byron opposed the removal of the sculptures, and wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

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.

The fact that the sculptures were “mouldering,” indeed damaged in part by the ravages of war, has been an argument for the British rescue of the marbles and keeping them safely on display in the British Museum for the world to see. Now the Greeks have built a spacious new Acropolis Museum, and want their precious stones back.

The new Acropolis Museum seems to have been built as a kind of “museum of dreams,” with empty spaces for the missing pieces in Britain alongside what the Greeks have installed, on the notion that “if you build it, they will come.”

The Greek argument is simple: “The sculptures are ours. Our ancestors created them, and now it’s time for them to come home.” This is certainly a compelling, linear argument, and has many supporters, even among the British people.

Those in favor of the British Museum make the following arguments:

The charter of the BM forbids sale of objects in the museum, which has been upheld by the law with rare exceptions. More than half of the original marbles have been lost, therefore, the return of the British collection would not make a complete collection in the Acropolis Museum. In his June 24, 2009 article in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman quotes the Greek writer Nikos Dimou on the subject. “If they (marbles) were returned, would Greeks be wiser, better? Other objects of incredible importance are scattered around Greece and no one visits them.” If one goes by the slides accompanying Mr. Kimmelman’s article, the Acropolis Museum is not starved for artifacts.

The Greeks finished the sculptures mounted on the east and west pediments of the Parthenon in the round because they believed the gods could see them from behind. The Greeks also covered them in bright polychrome colors: red, blue and gold. I have never heard anyone talk of painting the “noble” white marbles, actually a beautiful rose color in some pieces.

Who owns history? Mostly, the victors, who claim the spoils. In recent times of resurgent nationalism, native peoples and nation states have reclaimed their historical legacies. In New York City, the excavated Negro burial grounds led the city to protect that land from further development. Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” was removed from the Museum of Modern Art and sent to Spain. But what of the other thousands of trophies and spoils of war and foreign acquisitions by wealthy individuals?

Should we be required to travel to the Netherlands to view Rembrandt and Van Gogh? To the little town of Vinci to view the artistic and scientific works ob Leonardo da Vinci? Speaking personally, I have never traveled to Greece, although I would love to do so, and would not have seen the Elgin Marbles on my trip to London if they had not been in the British Museum, where they are well displayed. There is something to be said for having such a valuable collection on display in two locales for the benefit of the world.

I suspect the Greeks will continue to press their claim for the return of the Elgin Marbles and might eventually win, although probably not the return of the entire collection. I would guess that some compromise will be reached.

The poem “A River God of Athens, The Elgin Marbles” is from Selected Poems 1967 – 1987 by Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved. The photograph is also the property of the author.

Supported handless on his fluted drape,
Breasting neckless—the collarbones would speak—
He only tells of how the human shape
Was perfect in marble, noble and Greek.

Down, like an athlete forgotten from sport,
He bears a myth, yet what does stir the eye?
A potent grace and fullness rise cut short;
The action splays uncocked against the thigh.

How precious are these ancient stones to view,
Far removed from craftsman, faith and state?
If we could see our things a scattered few,
What would our broken biceps indicate?

Cameras are allowed, and do not touch;
The past is here to see and feel, as such.