The Demons of Athens; should the Elgin Marbles be returned?
Usually I write about music, but today I am going to talk about something that really got to me during my travels overseas.
Apart from being a wannabe rockstar/music reporter, I have a huge interest in history, both modern and classical. I was recently given the chance to go on a trip over to Europe for classics, with a focus on the Parthenon in Athens. This is the topic of this column, the controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles, which once adorned the Parthenon.
A bit of background; the Parthenon is an ancient temple structure in Athens, dedicated to the Goddess Athene. After a rocky history, in 1801, Lord Elgin of England went to the Parthenon and took parts of the sculptures that remained on it. To be specific, 15 sections of the Metopes, a large chunk of the Frieze, and many of what was left of both pediments. These are now stored in the British Museum in London. The Athenians for years have been asking for these sculptures back. It displays their history, one which they are very proud of. But the British are holding them, saying that they are better preserved where they are, and the tourism activity the collection gets is huge.
After visiting the British Museum, The Parthenon, and the Acropolis Museum (where the remaining sculptures remain) in the last week or so, I have been allowed to come to a conclusion on where I believe they should be. The Brits argue that they can preserve the marbles better,and that more people go through the British Museum, so the history is better seen there. Walking around the collection in the BM, you get a sense that the Parthenon wasn’t as big as you thought, that these sculptures are all of them. And yes, the resources in Britain are probably better when it comes to preserving such a beautiful and precious collection of art. When I was in London, my thoughts were on the side of the Brits, I believed that their stance was protecting the marbles better than the Greeks could.
But standing in the Acropolis Museum with copies of the marbles in the BM, next to those which were removed off the structure later on for preservation, behind me, and my eyes looking up to the Parthenon, a spark inside of me created a fire. The Greeks had the means to protect and preserve the marbles, so all the Brits were doing was holding onto a piece of another civilizations history. I’m going to be honest, it brought a tear to my eye to see what has been stolen from such a proud people.
I believe that the most important thing with history is to preserve it. But I also think that history belongs to those whose ancestors created it. For example the Maori heads that the NZ government are trying to get back from a European nation. Same battle, different context. History is so important to those whose lives have been affected by it, and for the Athenians, they have a burning sense of pride in their history.
The ancient Romans would honor their ancestors in their own homes. we in New Zealand honor ours when saying the traditional Maori greeting. The Athenians want to honor their ancestors by restoring their art back in its home. And the sense of pride can be felt when talking to any Athenian about the topic, one even applauded me for agreeing that the marbles should be returned (sadly this shared opinion did not get me a $5000 discount on the watch I was trying on).
For every spot in the Acropolis museum where a marble is in London, there is a sign which reads “To be returned home.” This is just one of thousands of cases where history needs to be returned home, and my experience has opened my eyes to this. In conclusion, it is time we start to think about as a united world about history and that national pride in ones history. It is so important to many people and nations, yet still flies under the radar for people. Anywhere you are, there will be a treasure that should be “returned home”, because of who the history with that item belongs to.
History belongs to the people whose ancestors before them created it. It is their story, one which cannot be taken like the Elgin Marbles from the Athenians