The Parthenon Marbles and Their Importance to a Nation

The new Acropolis Museum has brought with it a few world cultural questions about “ownership” of artifacts. In this case we are talking about the Parthenon Marbles or as some would call them the Elgin marbles. This is an incredible piece of facade or relief from the Acropolis that was sent to the British Museum of Natural History some 200 years ago by the then Lord of Elgin. In fact, now the act of relocating special artifacts from their national country is known as Elginism, and is considered cultural vandalism.

What is Elginism and How Does it Affect the Parthenon Marbles?

Of course, there are many such cases of Elginism and almost no nation can say they are innocent of practicing it, but the richer a country was the more common this type of theft was. Many museums in the United States, Britain, Germany and others display a wide array of artifacts from ancient history which has nothing to do with their country’s particular history. The good news is that most of these artifacts that come from conquest or war have been on display so the public can appreciate them, although the public rarely understands where these artifacts come from. Much of these samples of wonderful history are stolen from countries that are too poor to care for them, or to maintain them and sometimes they end up in private ownership.

Today, a great deal has been done to preserve the history in these poorer nations. The UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has helped put international laws in place that protect these artifacts and prevents the trafficking of such artifacts. These laws were not established until 1954 and are specifically addressed to the protection of cultural artifacts in any country should war break out. In 1999 the law was extended to prevent these artifacts from being treated as the “spoils of war” but to also prevent them from being destroyed. Today there is also an international fund that has been established to enable the return of artifacts to their rightful place.

UNESCO Laws are There to Protect Artifacts like the Parthenon Marbles

But even with these laws in place, the recovery of stolen artifacts is difficult especially when nations do not cooperate. For instance in 1990, antique restorer, Jonathan Tokeley Parry smuggled a bust of Amenhotep III out of Egypt by covering it in liquid plastic and painting it black and gold. It wasn’t until four years later, that he would be sentenced to jail for trying to sell another artifact. Police were able to recover the bust 5 years afterwards but it took Egypt twenty years to get the bust back.

Today Greece seems to be tied into the same type of paperwork backlog when it comes to the Parthenon Marbles. Their fate still remains undecided. The Greek government, and people demand their return and have created a wonderful Acropolis Museum to house them. Even some people in British Parliament agree, saying the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece. But others fear that if the marbles are returned then other countries will also demand the return of important cultural artifacts. They say if this happens then some of the most important museums in the world will soon be empty.

Cultural ownership is difficult to decide. Some may rightfully argue that the stewardship of this cultural property has preserved it when it would have otherwise fallen into disrepair or been destroyed, and others say that this was history, and not a part of modern governing rule. At any rate the solution is not to be found soon, and there seems to be no right or wrong, but seems to lie somewhere in the middle.

** Related Articles: Parthenon Marbles Or Elgin Marbles? New Museum Sparks Debate