July 18, 2024

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Make your own Parthenon marbles

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I have always loved the British Museum. I was eight years old the first time I walked between the great pillars of its Greek revival facade, a visitor from New York City who would eventually make her home in London. I’d spend years studying in the old Round Reading Room, and I still work in the Members’ Room, perched over the beautiful Great Court. 

As a girl I’m sure I gazed upon the Parthenon Sculptures — or the Elgin Marbles, as they’re often called. At the very end of the 18th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, had been appointed “ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey”; Greece was then under Ottoman rule. As the 19th century dawned, Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon, the 5th-century BC edifice that had been a symbol of the Athenian city-state: this material was then transported to Britain.

It’s common these days to say that these remarkable artefacts were stolen. Nicked. Swiped. Pilfered. Not so: as the British Museum’s own website notes soberly, Elgin’s actions “were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, prior to the sculptures entering the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament”.

Clearly, however, the matter is not settled. Not least because, most obviously, laws change. A mere decade before that parliamentary select committee met, British ships were still being sent to west Africa to enslave its inhabitants; another 17 years would pass before slavery was abolished across the British empire. It was once also entirely legal to bar women from voting; it was legal for children to work up chimneys and down mines. So we must be careful of the words “entirely legal”. 

2023-12-01 17:00:39

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