LONDON — Around 60 protesters gathered at the British Museum on Saturday, June 18 in the latest call for the Parthenon Marbles in London to be returned to Greece. The protest marked the 13th anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where around half of the original Parthenon sculptures are on display.
Dating from the fifth century BCE, the marble sculptures were created to adorn the sacred structures on the Acropolis in Athens, including the Parthenon. They include figures of legendary heroes and gods, sculpted relief panels portraying a battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths of Greek mythology, and a frieze depicting a procession during the Athenian festival of the “Panathenaea.”
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Between 1801 and 1812, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which ruled over modern-day Greece, arranged for 21 statues, 15 panels, and around 250 feet of the Parthenon Frieze to be removed and shipped to Britain — creating a storm of controversy and drawing accusations of vandalism and greed in the British press. The marbles were kept in Elgin’s private possession for 10 years before being acquired by the British Museum, where they have remained ever since.
This weekend’s protest at the British Museum was organized by the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM). The group was founded in 1983, the same year that the Greek government made its first official request for the permanent return of the sculptures in the British Museum’s collection. Protesters gathered outside the museum at 2pm before moving inside to the Great Court, waving Greek flags and holding a large banner with the slogan “Reunify the Marbles.” Members of the Greek and British communities made impassioned speeches calling for the return of the Parthenon Marbles and sang “Happy Birthday” to the Acropolis Museum.
The Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece’s most visited museum, opened in 2009 to house 4,250 objects from the archaeological site of the Acropolis. Its dedicated top-floor “Parthenon Gallery” displays the famous marbles, with the original sculptures supplemented by casts of those taken or destroyed. One of the motivations behind the construction of this purpose-built museum was allegedly to refute claims by British officials that Greece had no suitable location for the Parthenon sculptures to be displayed.
Around half of the original Parthenon marbles were destroyed in the 2,500 years since they were created. Those that survive are now in museum collections in six countries, including the Louvre and the Vatican, while the majority are divided almost equally between the British Museum and Acropolis Museum. In January of this year, the Italian government sent its Parthenon marbles back to Greece on long-term loan.
The British Museum maintains its position that the sculptures should be divided between the two museums, with each half telling its own complementary but distinct story. In an email to Hyperallergic about Saturday’s protest, a museum spokesperson said: “These beautiful works of art are loved by a world-wide community and we believe that public access should lie at the heart of these conversations, too often discussions are limited to legalistic and adversarial context instead of focusing on how to share the sculptures with a wider world.”
One of the protest’s organizers, Marlen Godwin, refuted the museum’s claim that retaining the Greek sculptures is about increasing public access.
“There are over 100,000 Greek objects in this museum; only 6,000 are actually exhibited for you to see. The rest are all in storage,” Godwin told Hyperallergic. “Surely, the world — other places, other countries — also deserve to see these.”
“What are we hoping to gain? Truthfully, for the British Museum to stop saying there are two stories. It’s one building, one Parthenon, one story,” she added.
There have been mixed messages from the British Museum and UK government in the last few months on the issue of the Parthenon Marbles. In early April of this year, the Museum denied a request from the Institute for Digital Archaeology to 3D-scan the marbles in order to create replicas that would be indistinguishable from the originals. However, later that month, the UK’s minister for arts, Stephen Parkinson, requested a meeting with Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni to discuss the return of the objects.
In the controversy’s latest twist, Chairman of the British Museum George Osborne said in a radio interview last week: “I think there’s a deal to be done where we can tell both stories, in Athens and in London.” When asked by the interviewer, Andrew Marr, whether this could mean temporarily moving the British Museum’s marbles to Greece, Osborne agreed, saying that visitors would be able to see them “in their splendour in Athens and alongside the splendour of other civilisations in London.”
One of the protesters, Edith Hall, who is a professor of Ancient Greek at Durham University, voiced her hope that she would see the return of the British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles within her lifetime.
“We’ve seen movement in the last two months like nothing since I joined the committee decades ago,” she told Hyperallergic. “I am more hopeful than I’ve ever been before.” Whether or not protests such as BCRPM’s will encourage the British Museum to shift its stance in the centuries-long dispute remains to be seen.