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Greece seeks to bring back ancient sculptures from the UK
Hari Sreenivasan: When the Parthenon in Athens fell into ruins in the 1800s, a British ambassador acquired about half the sculptures there and moved them to the British Museum. But Greece wants the marble sculptures returned. In January, the director of the British Museum sparked anger when he said the 2,500 year old sculptures would not be returned and called their early removal a "creative act."
In a story we first broadcast this past fall, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay explains the centuries-old controversy over the marble sculptures.
Christopher Livesay: A highlight of London's British Museum is one of its earliest acquisitions, the Parthenon Marbles. These sculptures once decorated the great 5th century BCE temple on the Acropolis in Greece. Considered among the great achievements of the classical world, they depict mythical creatures, stories of the gods along with average people.
Hannah Boulton: They are very significant and important masterpieces, really, of the ancient Greek world.
Christopher Livesay: Hannah Boulton is the spokesperson for the British Museum. She admits that how these classical works came to be in England is a sensitive subject, one the museum takes some pains to explain.
Hannah Boulton: I think it, obviously, has always been a topic of debate ever since the objects came to London and into the British Museum. It's not a new debate.
Christopher Livesay: The story starts in the early 1800s. The Parthenon had fallen into ruin. Half the marbles were destroyed by neglect and war. Then, a British ambassador, Lord Elgin, made an agreement with Ottoman authorities who were in control of Athens at the time to remove some of the statues and friezes. He took about half of the remaining sculptures.
Hannah Boulton: And then he shipped that back to the UK. For a long time it remained part of his personal collection so he put it on display and then he made the decision to sell the collection to the nation. And the Parliament chose to acquire it and then passed it on the British Museum. So we would certainly say that Lord Elgin had performed a great service in terms of rescuing some of these examples.
Christopher Livesay: But Greeks don't see it that way. For decades now, they have argued that the Ottomans were occupiers, so the deal with Elgin wasn't valid, and the marbles belong in Greece. Why does Greece want to have the Parthenon Marbles back in Athens?
Lydia Koniordou: It's not just bringing them back to Athens or to Greece. That's where they were created. But this is not our claim. Our claim is to put back a unique piece of art. To put it back together. Bring it back together.
Christopher Livesay: Lydia Koniordou was Greece's Minister of Culture from 2016 to 2018. We met her at the Acropolis where the Parthenon temple stands overlooking Athens.
Christopher Livesay: So first it was Lord Elgin who removed 50 percent.
Lydia Koniordou: Almost 50 percent.
Christopher Livesay: All of the marbles, she says, have now been removed from the monument for protection from the elements. Then it was Greece that consciously decided to remove the remaining.
Lydia Koniordou: Yes, the scientists that were responsible decided to remove and take them to the Acropolis Museum. It was nine years ago when the Acropolis Museum was completed.
Christopher Livesay: In fact, the new Acropolis Museum was built in part as a response to the British Museum's claim that Greece did not have a proper place to display the sculptures. The glass and steel structure has a dramatic view of the Acropolis, so while you're observing the art you can see the actual Parthenon. The third floor is set up just like the Parthenon, with the same proportions. These friezes, from the west side of the temple, are nearly all original. On the other three sides, there are some originals but also a lot of gaps, as well as white plaster copies of the friezes and statues now in Britain.
Dimitrios Pandermalis: We believe that one day we could replace the copies with the originals to show all this unique art piece in its grandeur. Every block has two or three figures and here is only one.
Christopher Livesay: Dimitrios Pandermalis is the Director of the Acropolis Museum where the story of the missing marbles differs widely from that of the British Museum. Presentations for visitors portray Lord Elgin critically. One film shows the marbles flying off the Parthenon and calls it the "uncontrollable plundering of the Acropolis." Another film depicts how one of the marbles was crudely split by Elgin's workmen.
Dimitrios Pandermalis: He damaged the art pieces, yes. Of course, it was to be expected.
Christopher Livesay: The British Museum disputes the claim Elgin damaged the sculptures. It also sees it as a plus that half the collection is in Britain and half in Greece.
Hannah Boulton: I think the situation we find ourselves in now we feel is quite beneficial. It ensures that examples of the wonderful sculptures from the Parthenon can be seen by a world audience here at the British Museum and in a world context in terms of being able to compare with Egypt and Rome and so on and so forth.
Christopher Livesay: But Pandermalis says rather than being in two places the sculptures should be reunified, literally. He showed us examples around the museum, including one that is almost complete, save for one thing.
Dimitrios Pandermalis: So this sculpture is original except the right foot.
Christopher Livesay: And perhaps most dramatic, this frieze. So the darker stone is the original and this white plaster that represents what's in the British Museum.
Dimitrios Pandermalis: Yes. Exactly.
Christopher Livesay: And here it is in the British Museum. The missing marble head and chest floating in a display space.
Lydia Koniordou: We feel also it's a symbolic act today to bring back this emblem of our world. To put it back together.
Christopher Livesay: If you bring back this emblem, aren't there untold other emblems that need to be brought back. Is this a slippery slope?
Lydia Koniordou: We do not claim, as Greek state, we do not claim other treasures. We feel that this is unique. This claim will never be abandoned by this country because we feel this is our duty.
Christopher Livesay: But the British Museum's position is the marbles in its collection are legally theirs. They would, however, consider a loan. After all, the British Museum regularly loans pieces from its collection to other museums around the world.
Hannah Boulton: I think we would certainly see there being a great benefit in extending that lending and trying to find ways to collaborate with colleagues, not just in Greece but elsewhere in the world.
Christopher Livesay: But sharing the sculptures is not what the ancient Greeks who created them would have wanted claims Pandermalis.
Dimitrios Pandermalis: They would be very angry. Because they were crazy for perfection. It was a perfection but today it is not.