A section of the Parthenon marbles has been taken to Russia to be out on display in St Petersburg. The statue, which depicts the Greek river-god Ilissos, will be shown in the city’s world famous Hermitage museum which houses over 3 million global treasures and is the 15th most visited at museum in the world. The section will be displayed in similar conditions to its current home in the UK, the British Museum in London.
This is the first time that the marbles have been loaned by the British museum to any other institution since Lord Elgin brought them, under dubiously-sanctioned circumstances (he was famously called a ‘vandal’ by Lord Byron for his actions), from the Greek Acropolis. Although the British government purchased the marbles officially in 1816 for £35,000 and exonerated Elgin, the loan is likely to add further fuel to the long-standing debate about the ‘rightful’ ownership of some of Greece’s most beautiful and valuable treasures.
The principal argument for the marbles to be kept in the UK is that they can be better preserved by the British museum than elsewhere. The marbles are currently housed in the Duveen Gallery, a purpose-built room that spans a large section of its London address. The marbles sustained several incidents of damage before Eglin obtained them, mostly during military action during the Greek War of Independent from the Ottoman Empire. The exposure of the marbles to the elements, during their 2000 years on the Acropolis and acts of vandalism from visitors, remain the chief source of their tarnishing. Thus, the Duveen Gallery has been argued as the best place to prevent further damage.
The argument for the marbles to be returned to Greece centres around the legality of Elgin’s exoneration and his right to remove the marbles in the first place. There has also been heated discussion of their treatment whilst in British hands. The act of transporting the marbles themselves caused considerable damage, both from the separation process from the main structure and during transit. One shipload sank during the voyage and, though salvaged, these marbles were submerged for almost two years. Once in 19th century London, both the air pollution and the cleaning methods used by previous museum staff left the works irrevocably damaged, chafing away the surface detail by up to 2.5mm. British archaeologists have claimed that, although ‘mistakes were made’ in initial preservation and cleaning in Britain before the 1930s, these harmful methods are still employed by Greek conservationists and place doubt on their ability to continue preserving the fragile artifacts effectively, if they were to be returned.
Earlier this year, UNESCO agreed to mediate the debate between the two countries. Celebrated public figures from controversial archaeologist Dorothy King to Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney have added their voices and expertise to the discussion. The outcome of the Parthenon marbles debate will have implications for many other artifacts currently displayed in institutions outside of their country of origin.