The Elgin Marbles were taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, and placed in the British Museum. They are considered by many to be one of the most important features of the Acropolis of Athens (were they there). The Greek government has demanded their return on several occasions, and the British government has refused to return them, claiming that they are housed and conserved better in Britain.
In 1816, the Marbles were sold to the British government and were at once transferred from Burlington House to the British Museum, where a special gallery was eventually built for them by Sir Joseph Duveen at his own expense. Ever since then, these peices of art have been the subject for great legal debate. (Vranopoulos, 1985)
The British government has many arguments against returning the Marbles to their orignal location in Athens. First, they feel the marbles were brought there legitimately from the Turks on the basis of a legal document, the Sultan's firman. Second, the object in taking them was to save them from total destruction, and the Greeks were indifferent to the fate of the their ancient treasures at the time. Finally, they feel that air pollution levels in Athens would quickly damage the Marbles. (Vranopoulos, 1985) The Greeks feel these reasons alone do not justify their actions. They feel that there is no evidence that the Marbles were purchased legitimately. They maintain that the Turkish officials were bribed by the British. They also feel that Elgin did more damage to them by removing them from the Parthenon. He had to saw some of the statues in half to reduce their weight and make transporting them easier. There is also evidence that indicates the Greeks grieved for their lost marbles, including the myth that the Caryatids could be heard wailing at night for their missing sister, and the claims by porters carrying the statues who thought they could hear cries coming from the figures in the crates. Finally, in response to the air pollution aligations, the greeks feel the Marbles suffered far more damage from their lengthy stay in the heavily polluted atmosphere of London than they would have done if they had stayed in Athens where pollution is only a very recent phenomenon. Lord Elgin admitted to the House of Commons that London's dampness had caused decay to the sensitive Pentelic marble. This was in 1816. (Williams, 1996)
The British Museum, to this day, tries to present Elgin as a lover of antiquity who dedicated himself to rescuing Pheidias' sculptures from ultimate destruction. But the facts of the case pesent a very different picture. With the Sultan's firman in his hand, Elgin seemed to think he had been given the right to take away anything he could lay his hands on. His actions didn't pass unnoticed. A lot of Members of Parliament protested against Elgin's action in the House of Commons but over the course of time were forgotten. There were also a lot of English writers, among them Lord Byron, who wrote that Elgin was a marble stealer and robber and his only interest was fame and glory from showing the Marbles. (Vranopoulos, 1985)
Among the first people to criticise Lord Elgin was H. Hammersley MP. He advocated that if any future Greek government demanded the Marbles back, England should return them without any further procedure or negotiation. Also in 1890 an editorial by Franklin Harrison, which appeared in the magazine "19th Century", entitled "Return the Elgin Marbles!" maintained that the sculptures were more dear to the Greeks than to the British. (Williams, 1996)
The decision of the British government to return the Stone of Scone to Scotland encouraged the Greek government to demand, via the British Ambassador in Athens and the Heritage Minister in London, the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Also, the Greek culture minister, has also mentioned that he intends to pursue the matter through political and legal procedures involving Unesco, the European Union and the Council of Europe.
In December 1940 a Labour MP, Mrs Keir, asked the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill whether the Marbles would be returned to Greece in partial recognition of that country's valiant resistance to the Germans and the sacrifices of its people. The answer came back negative. At the time that Mrs Keir officially announced her question, there was a large number of letters published in the Times favouring the return of the Marbles to Greece.
Then in 1941 the head of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, who was a member of the wartime coalition government, replied to Mrs Keir's question, saying that there was no intention to take any legal steps for the return of the Marbles. At the present, the Brittish government is not negotiating. However, few people support the British Museum holding the Parthenon Marbles. Last year, 33 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion calling for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Greece. Also, an opinion poll revealed recently that out of 99,340 people who expressed an opinion, a massive 91,822 voted in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles to the place they resided for over two millennia at the Acropolis. Previously, various opinion polls in this country in the 1980s revealed that around 70% of the British public favoured their return.
(Williams, 1996) I feel there is a very good chance that the Elgin Marbles may again see their original site at the Parethon. In a society like Brittains where the people utltimatly rule, the government will have to follow suit sooner or later.