July 18, 2004
You've Lost Your Elgin Marbles; Let Them Stay Where They Are
By Dorothy King
In 1981, the Greek actress Melina Mercouri decided she wanted to enter politics. She was advised to find a national cause to champion, so she turned up at the British Museum, camera crew in tow, and demanded that the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece. Most of the marbles, sculptures that originally decorated the exterior of Athens' famous Parthenon, had been salvaged, with permission, from the ruins of the 5th century BC temple by Thomas Bruce — Lord Elgin — in the 1800s.
Mercouri, ever the diva, threw herself on her knees in a gallery at the museum and kissed the floor, proclaiming her love of the Parthenon. A curator, ever the English gentleman, helped her up, whispering: "These are beautiful sculptures, Mrs. Mercouri, but the Elgin Marbles are in the next room."
That's a neat summary of the two sides in the long-simmering controversy over whether Britain should return the Elgin Marbles to Greece — a fight that's been escalating in the run-up to the summer Olympics in Athens. Those who believe that Britain should give back the marbles play fast and loose with the facts and play on people's feelings. Those who believe, as I do, in preserving the status quo, deal in rational — and much less dramatic — arguments.
Many letters have been published in newspapers arguing that the marbles belong under the blue Attic skies, rather than in a basement of the British Museum. Those words appear so often I can only assume there is a template somewhere suggesting people write this nonsense.
The Elgin Marbles are not in a basement. Reclining gods and goddesses and fragments from the Parthenon's frieze are very well displayed in a specially constructed wing of the museum. The notion that one could restore them to the Parthenon is a fantasy. The structure remains a ruin, too incomplete to hold the sculptures. Nor could they be displayed outdoors in Athens — the city's heavy smog would quickly destroy them.
So why not let the Greeks put them in a museum in Athens?
To begin with, the government of Greece has been unsuccessful so far in putting its own cache of surviving Parthenon marbles on display. It has been trying to build a new museum for them (and, the Greeks hope, for the Elgin Marbles as well), but the project has been long delayed. Dozens of leading archeologists object to the site, not least because what is beneath it, the remains of Athens' famous Philosophical Schools, has not been fully excavated.
But the problems go much deeper than a delayed, badly sited museum. Greek authorities have unfairly attacked the way Britain has cared for its Parthenon treasures, yet their own track record is far worse.
A few years ago, the Greeks raised a fuss, claiming that the British Museum had ruined the marbles during a "secret" cleaning in the 1930s and then hid them to cover up the damage. But the cleaning was hardly secret; it was discussed in almost every British newspaper at the time. And although the marbles were stored, it was done to protect them from the bombs Hitler was dropping daily on London.
In 1999, the museum organized a conference to look into the marbles' care. It was agreed that 1930s' cleaning method was harsh and would not be used today. But it was also shown that the Greek Archeological Service had used the same method and that it was still considered acceptable in Italy.
Others at the conference sought to prove, with electron microscopes, that the brown grunge removed in the cleaning was original 5th century BC paint. It was a puzzling demonstration, given that the same grunge covered repairs that had been made after Christian iconoclasts defaced the sculptures in the 5th century AD.
In the face of such charges, one would assume that a much better job has been done in conserving the Parthenon sculptures that remain in Athens. But that too is a fantasy.
Since the 1940s, archeologists have requested that sculptures still on the Parthenon be removed to prevent pollution damage. Yet it wasn't until 1977 that the last of the pedimental sculptures (on the gable ends of the temple) were removed. They were in such poor condition that they could no longer be exposed to air, and they now sit forlornly, viewable only through a glass box filled with gas.
Further, most of the low-relief frieze that encircled the building was not removed until 1993, and it has still not been properly conserved. Very few scholars have been allowed access to it, let alone the general public.
Finally, hard as it is to believe, some sculptures remain on the Parthenon to this day, which means they continue to be eaten away by acid rain.
The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum are well preserved, well cared for and accessible to all free of charge. The Parthenon sculptures in Athens, by contrast, are mostly in poor condition, continuing to disintegrate and accessible only to specialists. Parliament and the British Museum are right to keep the Elgin Marbles exactly where they are.
British archeologist Dorothy King's book "The Elgin Marbles: The Story of Archaeology's Greatest Controversy" will be published by Random House in Britain in 2005.