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The Elgin Marbles: a personal view

Of all the treasures in the British Museum, among the most beautiful are the sculptures taken from the Athenian Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801-1812. Their first public display in London caused a sensation: ancient Greek art had previously been known only through Roman copies, and the opportunity to study the very best of original works of art led to a renaissance, we might say, in the study of art in northern Europe.

However, the removal of the works from the building to which they had been attached has always been controversial, both legally (was it theft?), artistically (was it vandalism?) and morally (is it right to deprive a nation of its most iconic cultural possession?). And, if the answer to any of these is 'yes', should they be returned to Greece?

These questions were raised even in Elgin's lifetime, and were examined by a Parliamentary enquiry, even before the British government agreed to take ownership of the sculptures in 1816. But the concerns which were expressed then have not been laid to rest, and the sculptures have become powerful symbols of Greek cultural identity, famously through the advocacy of Byron, who fought in the war of independence against the Ottoman empire, and expressed his views of Elgin 'the plunderer' in his 1811 poem The Curse of Minerva.

The modern campaign to secure their return dates from the restoration of Greek democracy in 1975: Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture between 1981 and 1994, organised a competition to build a new Acropolis Museum, specifically designed to house them, which opened in 2009. The campaign has attracted considerable support in Britain, with prominent archaeologists and classicists including Anthony Snodgrass, Paul Cartledge and Oliver Taplin joining the British Committee for Reunification.

However, the British Museum curators have responded with a simple 'no, never', justifying this position in three ways: first by contrasting the relatively well-preserved state of the sculptures with the poor state of those which were left exposed to the city pollution of Athens (though see here for an evaluation of the 1930s cleaning); secondly, by arguing that more people can see these wonderful works of art in London than they would in Athens; and thirdly, by arguing that granting the request would set a precedent which would eventually lead to the destruction of all their collections.

The Greek government has countered the first and last of these points by building a Museum which can preserve the works against atmospheric pollution, and by arguing that the sculptures constitute a special case, because they belong to the most iconic building in the country, which is central to Greek identity and which is architecturally incomplete without them, and that they can be returned without prejudice to any other artefacts in the British Museum. In 2000, the Foreign Minister George Papandreou also suggested a compromise to the legal argument, by proposing that the Acropolis Museum could be classed as an outstation of the British Museum, so that legal ownership need not change.

More recently, however, the BM Director Neil MacGregor has strengthened one argument for retention, that more people can see the sculptures in London, by pointing out the advantage of having the sculptures in a comparative collection, where the links between Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Mexican and other cultures can be explored in a way that is impossible in a collection of art from just one nation. If you visit the Museum web-page for Gallery 18, you will see this view being expressed by Bonnie Greer, the cultural critic and BM Trustee.

By turning the political argument into a more scholarly one, Dr MacGregor has, it seems to me, substantially strengthened the case for retention. And from a purely selfish viewpoint, I should be glad to have the continued opportunity to appreciate the display in London, and to visit it as often as I like, without an entry charge.

However, there are silent witnesses which seem to me to weaken the BM's case seriously. These are the stones themselves, whose placement in the Gallery accentuates their fragmentary and orphaned state. The two major problems are (1) that the display is inside out, and (2) that the placing of the three groups which make up the collection (the frieze, pedimental sculptures, and metopes) has no internal coherence, with the major group, the frieze, placed 90 degrees out of alignment with the pedimental figures, and the metopes broken up arbitrarily into four groups.

Here's a ground-plan of the Parthenon, showing the original position of the sculptures:

A ground-plan of the BM Duveen Gallery is given below for comparison:

The lower plan is oriented so that the starting-point of the frieze procession is at the bottom, and the finish at the top, as in the upper plan (of the Parthenon). The southern frieze is then to the left, rather than to the right as in the original placing, due to the inside-out display: all the stones should be facing outwards, as shown in the upper plan.

In the BM plan, the pedimental figures are not placed at the start- and end-points of the frieze, but halfway along each side, so doubly breaking the continuity of the frieze procession. And the metopes, which were taken from one continuous sequence in the south-west part of the building, and which depict one narrative (the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs), are in the BM divided into four groups, tucked away in the corners of the gallery.

The three groups of stone could scarcely have been displayed in a more incoherent manner: the Duveen Gallery provides an object lesson to curators in how not to display exhibits.

And visitors do appear to find it baffling. Throughout the Gallery, one can see puzzled people hesitating, as they try to decide which way to turn next. I dare say that 90 per cent of visitors leave the Gallery without having understood the architectural function of the sculptures, and see them only as individual sculptures. Their experience of the collection, and the frieze in particular, is consequently diminished.

And the height of the display is all wrong. As the photograph below shows, the walls of the Duveen Gallery tower over the sculptures, emphasising their dismantled state. And the pediment figures interrupt the lines of the north and south friezes, though far away at each end of the gallery, while the metopes are quite invisible:

London: where are the metopes?

It is not, of course, easy to display such a complex group of figures satisfactorily. Yet strangely, little attempt has been made even to explain the original layout to the visitor, by diagrams or words. In the centre of the gallery, there is a small plan, and an adjoining room contains a model of the Parthenon, but with no indication of how the three groups of figures were placed relative to each other.

By contrast, a major strength of the Acropolis Museum is that it is designed to show the disposition of the marbles, and particularly the frieze, as facing outwards, and placed in their correct position relative to the ground-plan of the Parthenon, with the wall supporting the frieze having the same dimensions as the Parthenon, enabling visitors to walk round the frieze and appreciate its detail, just as if it were on the building.

Secondly, the placing of the metopes above the frieze gives a good idea of their original placing relative to the frieze, and their height gives visitors some impression of their original placing, high up on the building. The placing of the pediment fragments also relates to the other elements, though their low height is less satisfactory.

Thirdly, the gallery is designed with large windows through which the building itself can be seen (in the same orientation as the gallery layout), and which flood the gallery with light. This helps to provide a much more intellectually and emotionally complete experience than does the London display.


A fourth factor is also in play: the Athens frieze is more complete, because it includes, in facsimile, all the pieces which are the British Museum, as well as its own pieces. (It is not widely publicised that the facsimiles were, necessarily, produced with the help of the BM.) And this suggests a possible solution to the problem of ownership. Could the London stones be replaced by cast copies?

Purists may be horrified at the suggestion: surely it's unthinkable for a museum gallery to contain only cast copies? Well actually no, in fact: this is already an established practice. It is already possible to see many of the same Parthenon sculptures as plaster casts, in archaeological museums at Edinburgh (the complete frieze), Oxford, Basel, Cambridge, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Göttingen.

Sceptics may imagine that the experience of looking at copies cannot be compared with viewing the real thing, but is this really true? It must be admitted that the resin casts which can be seen in the BM (in rooms next to the Duveen Gallery) repel the eye with their glossy bubbling surfaces, which do not look like marble. However, hand-crafted plaster casts are a different matter entirely, because plaster is capable of taking the precise shape of an original, and, if it is given the right surface treatment, is indistinguishable from marble at a distance of about 8 feet. (For a brief discussion, see the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 6.2 1912: 27. For details of the process of plaster-casting, see the Plaster Casting Journal by Andrea Felice.)

In London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the two Cast Courts are among the most attractive and popular destinations: here we can see Trajan's Column, Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, and Michelangelo's David, cheek-by-jowl in a delightfully-chaotic and historically-defying jumble. These casts, which are three-dimensional, finely-detailed, and finished by hand, have great emotional power, and can be contemplated as works of art, just as much, say, as a bronze casting. And it is evident that visitors don't find such facsimiles unsatisfying: indeed, in the Cambridge Cast Gallery, the custodians are frequently asked by visitors whether the sculptures are 'real' or 'genuine', and this is presumably also the case in other collections.

There is a further consideration. Although, at close-range, it's clear that a plaster surface differs from a marble one, the Parthenon works have all deteriorated seriously, with stone of the frieze in particular flaking badly, so the originals themselves are in a terrible state. When we look at them, we see not only great artworks, but also ancient ruins, brought low by millennia of neglect and abuse. And it is this layered flaking, rather than the translucent surface of the marble, which is the clearest sign that we are looking at the originals, at old stone rather than new plaster.

So, why not keep the art here and reunite the ruins, by making high-quality plaster casts for London, and returning the originals to Greece? We can visit Athens to see the originals in their own home. And, in the British Museum, the shortcomings of the current display can be overcome, by reorganising the plaster copies into a more coherent configuration. It is likely that the BM already has casts of many of the pieces: it's difficult to know for sure, as all of its own classical plaster casts are currently in storage.

However, the British Museum opposes any such compromise. Indeed, its argument for retention is now being put even more boldly, with a claim that the current division of the Parthenon sculptures [a roughly equal number of sculptures in Athens and London] is in fact an ideal state of affairs. A sentence from their leaflet explaining this interesting conclusion is worth quoting:

"The Trustees remain convinced that the current division 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."

This statement is logically rather peculiar: just how does the current division encourage different and complementary stories? Well, I suppose by keeping alive the argument about their status, rather than leading to a consensus. The jargon masks a confrontational stance, probably stimulated by fear: that reunification would encourage more countries to campaign for the return of artefacts. And so the function of the British Museum as a world resource, where objects from widely different cultures can be compared, is invoked to justify a geographically-dislocated display.

It may well be true that the wholesale return of art objects to their countries of origin would be disastrous for the preservation of many cultural artefacts, and so work against the interests of the countries of origin, which do not always have the resources to maintain them. In contrast, the BM has the funding to take good care of these objects, whatever the errors it has made in the past, and its free-entry policy strengthens its case for keeping the sculptures where most people can see them.

However, the 'world resource' argument depends on the museum being able to display its treasures effectively, which the British Museum manifestly fails to do. Not only are the Parthenon sculptures displayed poorly, as described above, but many of the Museum's other treasures are not displayed at all: most of the contents of the Museum of Mankind, the BM's ethnographic outstation in Mayfair, closed in 1997, are still in storage, and they were joined by the contents of three of the Egyptian galleries, to make space for the Great Court, a 2-acre concourse opened in 2000. The Museum's current development plan appears to focus on providing a showcase for selected artworks, and neglecting the Museum's stated aim: "to hold for the benefit of humanity a collection representative of world cultures and ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched, exhibited and made available to the widest possible public" (BM Report 2003, p.3).

The Museum's argument is now being undermined by a more serious policy: of hiring out its artefacts, which shows little concern for their safekeeping, or the coherence of the displays from which they are removed.

This first became evident in late 2014 , with the loan of one of the Parthenon pedimental figures, thought to represent the river-god Ilissos, to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg for its 250th anniversary celebrations. The stone is in poor state, with flaking on the right side of the chest and a deep fracture across the back, so the loan shows little regard for the artefact's safety.

Even more surprising news was announced in June 2015: a proposed loan of 500 artefacts to the Zayad Museum in Abu Dhabi for an unprecedented five years. This has aroused considerable surprise and criticism. Many commentators have suggested that the proposed long-term loans are a response to reductions in state funding, which is combined with government pressure for museums to continue offering free admission. For particularly trenchant comment, see the Grumpy Art Historian. In any case, the Museum's willingness to 'hire out' its most precious artefacts on long-term loans weakens its credibility as a suitable custodian of the Parthenon marbles.

Summary: Whether the sculptures stay in London or are replaced by a set of casts, we can all visit the British and the Acropolis Museums, or the cast museums noted above, and contemplate and enjoy these beautiful and inspiring objects, which are as real in plaster as in stone. And whatever the outcome, we may hope that the BM will take steps to improve the display from its current disjointed arrangement, so that visitors may see it as a coherent group. Although it might be politically difficult to reorganise the originals, it seems absurd to let the collection continue to be displayed so poorly. If the present state of affairs continues, we shall all be the losers.

  • For regular news, posted on a campaigning blog, see Elginism.

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