Parthenon Frieze, British Museum

parthenon frieze british museum
There is probably room for debate about whether or not the British should have taken (or should return) all the sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens which they removed in the early 19th Century. Of course, one should note that the Greeks occupying Ottoman Turks had used the Parthenon for a powder magazine in a war with the Venetians in the 17th Century and that the reason many of the sculptures were in such bad condition is that, not surprisingly, the Parthenon had been blown up during a battle. Combine that with the fact that the British Museum has provided a huge, well sheltered, display for two centuries (something the Greeks only got around to recently,) and that the British Museum gets more than 6 million visitors each year, and I'm not feeling too sorry for the Greeks. (The above has been corrected, thanks to a commenter below.)

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9 thoughts on “Parthenon Frieze, British Museum”

  1. Yeah. My knee jerk 60’s liberal reaction is to think the British were imperialist dogs to help themselves to all that patrimony from other countries. On the other hand, as you point out, they keep it meticulously and display it to the public—for free, no less. Then, there’s the Taliban, blowing up ancient Buddhas because they some how offended their religious sensibilities and suddenly, the British model looks more than a tad better.

  2. And, as the most powerful nation on earth for almost four centuries, they have privileges…and obligations. Both of which they took seriously. Since we’ve been the most powerful nation, we’ve only stolen money, which is rather banal of us, don’t you think?

  3. Your history is wrong in this instance. It wasn’t the Greeks who stored munitions in the Parthenon, but rather the Ottoman Turks. The Turks conquered Athens in 1458 and first used the temple as a mosque. Over the the next two hundred years, as Athens declined in population and importance, the Parthenon served other purposes and finally was a munitions storehouse. The besieging Venetians didn’t blow it up on purpose but rather it was a stray shell that caused the explosion.

    When Lord Elgin acquired the “Elgin Marbles” he did so in a deal with the local Turkish ruler.

    • Yes, you’re right about the Turks. Thanks for the correction. Sorry for my faulty memory. As for the Venetians blowing it up, I was under the impression that munitions storage is certainly a valid, and inviting, target. Probably not a stray shot, is my guess.

  4. Thanks to MiamiJayHawk for correcting your mistake in the history.As for not feeling “too sorry for the Greeks”..I think its a shame you would make a comment like that.The Marbles belong back in Greece where they were taken from WRONGLY..And as for not having a proper place to display them for so long…well can you really compare a small country like Greece to the U.K. and its resources?Yes..they were late in getting it done..but they they always do.

    • And, in the intervening almost 200 years, the soft marble would have been subject to the prodigious pollution of Athens, and they would look like the friezes that are in the Athens museum now, instead of how they look in the British Museum–which is much better. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to return them to Greece, now that there is a place to put them. I think some sort of negotiation of sharing them so that a portion returns and other artifacts are “loaned” to replace them would be a good compromise. Then, there’s the question, if you begin repatriating every work of art that was removed from one country to another, where would it stop? Every museum in the world would be the poorer, as would all the people who would be deprived of seeing art from the rest of the world.

  5. While the British Museum has provided a sheltered environment for the sculptures against the Athenian air pollution, when they were brought to London they were ruthlessly cleaned, including removing all traces of original colour and even polishing away tool marks that were still evident on a lot of the works. This was because their original state didn’t conform to neo-classical ideas about ancient Greek sculpture. Add to that the damage done to the building to remove them, including throwing covering architectural elements to the ground, and the British case for treating the Parthenon well gets a bit thin. Only the Greeks have cared for the buildings on the Acropolis and worked for their conservation, and now there is the perfect setting in the new museum for the sculptures right under the Acropolis, that sets the fragments in their original placing within a neutral and clear architectural setting rather than using them to make a neo-classical statement, as is the case with the British Museum room. I think it’s time to give them back.

    • Matthew, thanks for weighing in. I always learn more from my commenters.

      As I said above, yes, it probably is time to work out some deal to give them back, but only with some firm agreement as to their preservation. Given the current state of the economy and stability and financial wherewithal of Greece, I would be only marginally confident that could be done to everyone’s satisfaction. Yes, perhaps the British did some damage to the history of the works by cleaning and polishing them, but they certainly did preserve the art of the sculptures. As opposed to the Greeks, who left them to literally disintegrate in the acid air of Athens. I’ve seen them in both places now, and wish that some compromise could be reached. Perhaps half and half?

      By the way, would you also return all the British Museum’s Egyptian artifacts, all the Greek urns (which unfortunately the British don’t display in such numbers as they used to,) the Roman statuary, the Mexican and Guatemalan friezes from the Mayan temples, and so forth ad infinitum? How about the Monets in New York to France? Or the Miros to Barcelona? All the world’s art that Napoleon took to Paris? I think that the wider art is distributed, the better, and, given the usual high level of cooperation among museums around the world, I’m hopeful that the Parthenon issue might be resolved in an equitable manner.

      Finally, how about returning the Nazi-stolen art now in Austria, Switzerland, etc. to the descendants of its owners?


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