Why are the Elgin marbles so controversial – and everything else you need to know
The British Museum has lent one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia. But what are they and why the diplomatic row?
The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum
What are the Elgin Marbles?
A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.
What is the Parthenon?
Regarded as one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.
Did Lord Elgin steal them?
Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.
Where are they housed?
The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.
Why the controversy?
The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.
The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country's Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles. But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned. Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.
When did the row begin?
The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece. Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens. The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are "an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history".
Why the recent publicity?
In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had "just cause" for the return of the marbles.
Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them. However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave "maximum public benefit" by staying in London.
The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.
What survives of the Parthenon?
Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?
Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.