Reuniting the Sculptures

A historic act that will inspire future generations
Reuniting the Acropolis sculptures is the greatest act of heritage conservation awaiting action

Acropolis Museum (31 August 2012)

Why bring these classical sculptures back together

There is no more symbolic act of heritage conservation than reuniting the Acropolis sculptures in Athens. It is a historic opportunity to restore the physical and conceptual dimensions of a unique monument and rebuild a cultural bridge between London and Athens. It is an opportunity to celebrate a new era of creativity and museum ethics aligned with today’s values of heritage and education. It’s about friendship and making something great happen to broaden our view of humanity and inspire future generations.

A bit of background

In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (commonly referred to as Elgin), took sculptures from the Acropolis of Athens by obscure means and shipped them to Britain. The sculptures, also known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ (but correctly referred to as the Acropolis or Parthenon Sculptures, as far as the subset that was removed from the Parthenon is concerned) included a number of artistic and architectural pieces, all of which are part of the surviving ancient buildings on the Acropolis in Athens.

The Greek State has repeatedly requested from the British government and British Museum to return the sculptures to Athens to restore the physical, archaeological and conceptual integrity of the sculptural set as a single masterpiece. However, Britain refuses to return them, arguing that they were taken by Elgin with permission from the Ottoman authorities. While the argument of ownership diminishes itself in comparison to the scientific and ethical reasons behind the request for the reunification, strikingly, the original Ottoman permit invoked in the British argumentation is missing. Since the late 20th century, when Melina Mercouri brought publicity to the long-standing claim for the return of the sculptures to Athens, this dispute has remained pending. This issue continues to affect the cultural bond between London and Athens, creating the exact opposite effect than the message of unity that the sculptures themselves were designed to convey.

What can be done today

The argument for their reunification of the Acropolis Sculptures in Athens is that such an act would restore the physical integrity and meaning of the sculptures, and let them be displayed in the correct geographic, historical, and archaeological context. While the architectural damage caused by Elgin cannot be reversed, today, a new Act of the English Parliament would allow the UK to return the sculptures to complete the set with the existing counterparts in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. As a goodwill gesture, Greece has previously offered to the British Museum an exchange of other artefacts in return for the reunification of the Acropolis Sculptures.

The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, located at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, has been open to the public since 2009 and has the capacity to accommodate all of the Acropolis sculptures together in direct view of the Acropolis. Its Parthenon Gallery provides a visual link between the Parthenon sculptures and the Parthenon itself, enabling their display in the correct sequence, layout, and context. It is a purpose-built museum with exhibitions in natural light and only a short walk from the Acropolis archaeological site.

In recognition of the issue that a significant number of the Acropolis sculptures is kept in London, many political and cultural figures have campaigned for their return to Athens. Polls have shown that the majority of people supports the reunification of the Sculptures. English Parliament MPs have also campaigned for what will satisfy an international claim, highlighting the need to bring the parts of a masterpiece together. The ultimate aim is to restore the meaning of the Acropolis.

Although practicalities need to be agreed and arranged between London and Athens before the sculptures are brought to the Acropolis Museum, one thing is certain: an increasing number of people realise that reuniting the parts of the Acropolis is about culture, education, respect, and the meaning of world heritage.

Video of the debate ‘Send them back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens‘. Source: Intelligence Squared

The reunification of the Acropolis scuptures is a matter of time and understanding. It’s already started.