Currently housed in the British Museum, the Parthenon Marbles have been stripped of their integrity, much in the manner that they were stripped from the Parthenon in the early 19th century. To observe them away from the magnificent monument, of which they were once part, does little to explain the significance of the Marbles and fails to educate the viewers that plundering nations argue are justification for the retention of looted and inappropriately acquired cultural property.
The Parthenon Marbles were originally one with the Parthenon, standing majestically at the foot of the Acropolis for centuries. It was only following their plunder and removal from their home that they were rebranded the Elgin Marbles, disassociating these treasures from the carcass left behind. Consequently, the structure now stands crippled, ravaged by the actions of Elgin and his excavation team, who themselves admitted to using ‘barbarous’ force.
Through stripping them from their home, the Parthenon Marbles have lost their integrity; they cannot be appreciated as intended by their creators. To view them outside of their original context subverts the importance of these great works of art, which once stood proud as one of the greatest shrines of artistry. Moreover, academia is stunted, as understanding their cultural impact is spoiled by their retention away from Athens. Now they are presented, beautiful yet vacant, within the bleak walls of the British Museum.
They deserve more than to be denoted as the Elgin Marbles. These are the Marbles of Parthenon. Whether the sale, which allowed them to be taken from Athens, was valid is debatable. What is not, is the fact that the Parthenon Marbles prove a clear reminder that cultural imperialism allowed for actions that would be deemed unethical and barbaric in modern civilised society. Therefore had Elgin attempted to take the Marbles in our current time, the Greek consensus would be that this would be a betrayal to the heritage of Greece and the transaction would never happen.
This betrayal stems from the irrefutable fact that cultural property cannot be treated as a simple chattel. Art is a special commodity in itself, it cannot be handled the way we handle other objects. Consequently, cultural property embodies this reality. The Parthenon Marbles hold an emotional wealth that prohibits them from being treated as such; they cannot be quantified as simplistically as you would an object at a market or in a shop. Thus the actions of the Ottoman Empire were immoral and unethical. A foreign coloniser should not be able to throw away the culture of a subjugated nation.
Undeniably, Elgin was successful at excavating the Marbles and protecting them prior to the independence of Greece, following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Marbles no longer need protection by a foreign nation. They require repatriation to their rightful place, beside the Parthenon to be observed as a whole, although irreparably fragmented.
The current proposal, from Greece, to extend the authority of the British Museum to the Acropolis Museum enforces the desire for the integrity of these objects to be restored, rather than use of the Marbles as objects of politicised nationalism.
The new museum rests close to the Parthenon, with walls of windows allowing a clear view of this architectural monument. The Marbles can then be seen as closely as possible to how the creators intended, while also providing a safe haven from the smog that has unfortunately maimed some of the sculptures left behind in Athens outside of the museum walls.
British retention is not only an offence to the Greek people, but to the Marbles themselves
Returning the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum would allow them to be viewed safely within eyesight of their original home, allowing the Parthenon to be viewed as one combinative structure rather than the Marbles alone as purely magnificent individual works of art. To do this would restore the Parthenon Marbles to their superiority – as the wonderful origins of the western world, not just wonders of cultural imperialism.
Should we allow this act of imperialism to govern the future? Surely we should look towards a modern civilisation, built on the democracy that the Parthenon Marbles have become to represent. The attachment to the Marbles, although international, gravitates towards the magnetic pull of Greece, the true home of these works.
We are situated in a time where cultural property is no longer a luxury to be adored by the educated or those deemed worthy to view them. To retain the Parthenon Marbles and deny the integrity of such majestic work is an offence not only to the Greek people, who were unable to prevent the treason of their sale, but also to the Marbles themselves.