Repatriation or Retention: The Elgin Marbles and the ethics of cultural ownership

By Lindelwa Masuku

The ongoing battle between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles, the ancient sculptures taken from the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Athens, is a highly contentious issue that has been raging for over two centuries. 

While Britain maintains that the marbles were acquired legally by Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Greece maintains that they were stolen and has long campaigned for their return.

The Elgin Marbles sculpture collection displayed in the British Museum, London

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures that adorned the Parthenon temple in Athens, Greece, between 447 and 438 BCE. They were removed from the temple by Thomas Bruce, who was acting on behalf of the British government, between 1801 and 1805. The marbles were then sold to the British Museum in London, where they have been on display ever since.

The Greek government has been campaigning for the return of the marbles for decades, arguing that they were taken illegally and should be returned to their rightful place in Athens. 

However, the British Museum has consistently refused to return the marbles, arguing that they were acquired legally and that they are an important part of the museum's collection.

Recently, the UK has proposed to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece on a long-term basis, rather than returning them outright. 

However, Greece has refused this proposal, insisting that they want the marbles back in their entirety.

This issue raises important questions about the importance of returning artworks and sculptures that were taken from other countries illegally. 

Many people argue that it is important to return such works as a way of acknowledging the injustices of the past and promoting cultural understanding and reconciliation.

Returning stolen cultural artifacts also sends a powerful message about respecting the rights and sovereignty of other nations. Many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, have called for the return of cultural artifacts that were taken during colonial times. 

Some Western museums have started to return such artifacts, but progress has been slow and incomplete.

The British Museum has stated that it is open to finding a solution that works for both Britain and Greece. A spokesperson for the museum said, 

We've said publicly we're actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and, as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing." However, it remains to be seen whether these discussions will lead to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. 

The Elgin Marbles sculpture collection displayed in the British Museum, London

The Elgin Marbles are just one example of the ongoing battle over cultural artifacts that were taken from other countries illegally. 

While the British Museum may argue that they have a right to keep the marbles, the moral case for returning them to Greece is strong. 

Ultimately, the decision on whether to return the marbles will depend on political will and a willingness to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.

We wonder when our African artefacts and art will be returned to home soil...

Article Tags

Elgin Marbles

Britain and Greece

Thomas Bruce

Ottoman Empire

Parthenon temple in Athens

British Museum in London


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