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According to The Telegraph, the Elgin Marbles ownership dispute is probably the most famous and the longest running of historical pieces of art, and which is between Britain and Greece (Anast 1). Sometimes called the Parthenon Marbles, Elgin Marbles are a collection of Greek artifacts that were under duress removed from Parthenon in Athens probably in early 1800s. At present, the artifacts are found in the British Museum.
They were removed from Parthenon by Thomas Elgin, the Seventh Earl of Elgin and the first British ambassador sent to negotiate for an alliance between England and Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. He sold them to the British Parliament which then authorized their display in the British museum (“Elgin Marbles” 1).
They were named Elgin in his honor. Therefore, this paper discusses the issues involving the acquisition of the marbles, the parties involved in the acquisition, the cultural issues behind them and the ownership claims of the British and the Greeks. In as much as the debate continues to intensify, so do moral and legal considerations suggest that the marbles should be returned to Greece.
Parthenon Marbles not Elgin Marbles
As long as morality and legality prevails, the Parthenon Marbles were not removed from Athens in the proper way, even as per the time of Lord Elgin. The acquisition of the Elgin Marbles by the British is surrounded by astonishing facts which have attracted a global movement calling for their return to Greece (Pierce 1). There are facts that the acquisition involved bribes, threats and stealing which has intensified the debate over the ownership.
Indeed, this argument reflects a moral, legal and philosophical issue that requires a solution once and for all. Evidence suggests that many people do not pay respect to Elgin by using the British name of the artifacts because of the moral issues surrounding the ownership and instead insists on referring to the artifacts as the Parthenon Marbles (Pierce 1). The widespread acceptance that the artifacts should be owned by the Greeks is an indication of their importance to the Greek culture and the general respect of cultural satisfaction.
As stated before, Elgin Marbles were removed from Parthenon by Thomas Elgin, the first British ambassador sent to negotiate for an alliance between England and Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. This enabled him to influence the Sultan to allow the British to outweigh local restrictions which prohibited access to important sites and buildings.
Despite the privilege given to Elgin over the local restrictions failing to give authority over the removal of sculptures from Parthenon, he resourcefully manipulated people to obtain what he wanted. With a determination to get Parthenon Marbles, he threatened local authorities who were against him by cautioning them that he would ask for permission from the Sultan to punish them severely. Again, he openly bribed authorities who supported him with astonishing extravagant gifts.
This approach was most unethical, but very effective at that time due to the political fear of uncertainty and atrocious acts which the Athenians had witnessed. Since then, the collection has been displayed in the British Museum under the name Elgin Marbles in honor of an individual who acted unethically on humankind.
This is particularly irritating to the Greeks who were snatched prized artifacts and the cultural symbol through unethical approach. It is more irritating when the British persistently claim ownership despite the worldwide movement which insists on giving back the treasure to Greeks.
Like the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China, Elgin Marbles are unique to the culture and history of the Greeks. The richness of our history is driven by human achievements. This richness is one that sometimes people feel and experience when they are afforded the opportunity of seeing the long forgotten achievements in ancient artifacts that have survived throughout history.
The gifts are not only the reflections to the past, but also revelations to revolution and progress of mankind. The Elgin Marbles reflect the history of the Greeks, as well as revealing their revolution and progress. In addition to these issues, supporters of British ownership have ignored the cultural importance of Elgin marbles to the Greeks.
Since they were removed from the Parthenon, Greece has continuously demanded for their return. This is a clear indication that the artifacts are important to their culture especially when we consider the landmark developments in the property ownership laws.
This shows that legal needs have played a minor role in this demand when compared to cultural needs. Therefore, the persistent belief that the artifacts belong to Greece is revealed clearly when the cultural role played by the collection is examined. From these observations, it can be argued that the marbles are the symbol, the soul and the lifeline of the Greeks.
Parthenon Marbles explain the religious beliefs and life in the historical city of Athens; an explanation that can only be understood completely when the Parthenon is viewed as a whole. The religious building was completed probably between 431 and 432 BC in honor of Goddess Athena in which the decorative sculptures showed the ancient victory of Greek heroes and gods. This was actually a symbol of victory of civilization over oppressive rule.
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The citizens of Athens who represented the whole Greek population were symbolized as being in union with gods by the sculptures. No wonder Ounanian observes how historians drew on the hypocrisy of the situation after the Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon (114). The sculptures were also a symbol of the political and cultural history of Greece. Indeed, ownership laws have categorized the artifacts as cultural properties.
Apparently, everybody should uphold the integrity of the world with respect to the history of its subjects because we have the responsibility for each other’s welfare. It seems that those who insist on the Elgin Marbles remaining in the British Museum are either culturally insensitive, selfish or consider the British to be superior to the Greeks.
The supporters of British ownership offer four major arguments to justify the ownership of Elgin Marbles (Doyle 270). First, the removal of the artifacts was appropriate under the international laws that were applied at the time of Elgin.
Second, the British saved the artifacts from destruction by removing them from Greece. Third, allowing Greece to assume ownership of the artifacts will trigger a major worldwide removal of other artifacts displayed in museums within nations away from the places of origin. Fourth, the British ownership of the artifacts is over a century old making the marbles a vital cultural heritage.
However, supporters of Greece ownership also provide several main reasons as to why the Elgin Marbles should be at their custody as well as dismissing the ownership claim from the British as illegal (Doyle 270).
First, the Parthenon, the monument that the artifacts belong to is in Athens, Greece. Second, the artifacts form an indivisible part of the Parthenon. Third, the British authorities have the responsibility to the world to bring back its symbol of honesty. Fourth, once in Athens, the artifacts will be shown in display within the site of the parent monument and any visitor can form the whole picture of the temple.
Looking at the arguments presented, it is clear that the Greeks have been deprived prized artifacts in the most immoral manner that no counter-argument can withstand. Most of the British arguments can be considered flawed, especially when we consider developments on other disputes relating to artifacts.
The British neither saved the Elgin Marbles from destruction as the tearing of the walls of the monument was a high-level destruction nor the British cultural heritage is more important than the deprivation of culture the Greeks have gone through. The Greek arguments are coherent and reveal the immoral intentions of the British right from the time the artifacts were acquired up to the present.
The discussion in this paper suggests that the true owners of Elgin Marbles are the Greeks hence the British should return the artifacts to Athens. The acquisition of the artifact by Lord Elgin was unethical and could not apply to international laws even as per that time.
The Greeks have been denied their cultural rights especially because the Parthenon that was stripped down is a religious and historical symbol to them. If the marbles are returned to Athens, the Greek culture that has been so important to the emergence of the civilized world might open up better to help in learning from our history.
“Elgin Marbles”. New York Times 24 June 2009. Web.
Doyle, Megan. “Ownership by Display: Adverse Possession to Determine Ownership of Cultural Property.” The George Washington International Law Review, 41.5 (2009): 269-297. Web.
Ounanian, Melineh. “Of All the Things I’ve Lost, I Miss My Marbles the Most! An Alternative Approach to the Epic Problem of the Elgin Marbles.” Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 9.3 (2007):109-144. Web.
Pierce, Andrew. “Greek Government Unveils New Home for Elgin Marbles.” The Telegraph 11 May 2009. Web.