What are the Elgin Marbles?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

If you're visualizing a collection of spherical glass objects when you read the title of this article, you're not alone. In fact, the Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculpture and other artifacts taken from Greece and currently housed in the British Museum, and named for Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin. The “Marbles” in the name for this collection of artifacts is a reference to the fact that most of them are made from marble, a material which was abundantly available to the Ancient Greeks.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The Elgin Marbles are also known as the Parthenon Marbles, referencing the location from which they were taken in the early 1900s. Thomas Elgin obtained permission to remove the statuary and other objects from the Ottoman Empire, which had jurisdiction over the Parthenon at the time. Over the course of roughly a decade, numerous items were removed from the site and taken to Britain by ship.

At the time, there was some commentary on whether or not the removal of the Elgin Marbles was legal or ethical. Some people compared it to vandalism, pointing out that some of the statuary was damaged or lost in transit, and arguing that it should have remained in its cultural context. Others viewed the Elgin Marbles as a great coup for Britain, and they ultimately won the day, ensuring that the art would be displayed in the British Museum as a permanent collection.

The Elgin Marble dispute continues to this day. The Greek government has repeatedly requested the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, and it has sent similar pleas to other museums and private collections which hold artifacts from the Parthenon. Advocates for the return argue that the Elgin Marbles should be returned both because they were illegally removed, and because they should be reunited with their place of origin so that visitors to the Parthenon can see it in its intended entirety.

Others, however, argue that the Elgin Marbles may be safer in the British Museum. Athens is notorious for its pollution, which has already caused substantial damage to the parts of the Parthenon which remain in Greece. Returning the statuary to Greece could be tantamount to signing its death warrant, as the pollution could quickly cause irreparable damage. Furthermore, the charter of the museum explicitly bans the return of artifacts (except those on loan, of course), and the British Museum has suggested that repatriating the Elgin Marbles could trigger a flood of requests from nations all over the world for the return of their own appropriated cultural artifacts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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