Drama-documentary in which Andrew Graham-Dixon tells the story of the Elgin Marbles and their removal from Athens. He also cites the arguments for and against their return.
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200 years ago, workmen were swarming over the Acropolis,
the rock that dominates the ancient city of Athens.
They were hard at work on exquisite pieces of marble sculpture
but this was not an act of creation.
The workmen were obeying the orders of one man -
Elgin was risking his fortune, reputation and health in compulsive pursuit of a grand scheme -
the removal of the sculptures and their transportation to Britain.
Elgin's ambition was to lead to his ruin
and to one of the greatest international controversies of the last two centuries,
for the sculptures were decorating one of the oldest and most revered buildings in the world...
This is the story of one man's obsession and the scandal his actions caused.
This is the story of the Elgin Marbles.
There's no question that Elgin performed one of the greatest acts of conservation rescue in history.
He was seeking to do something for the public good, for art.
If Elgin, today, went and dismantled a building immensely precious to another country's identity,
we'd regard him in the same light as we regard Nazis, you know, stripping places that they occupied.
One can't think about returning the Elgin Marbles until the Greeks start caring for what they already have.
If a woman was abusing her child, you wouldn't let her adopt another.
They are our pride.
They are a noble symbol of excellence and they are a thankful tribute to democracy.
And that's what all the Greeks feel.
You don't take away a country's pride.
In the year of the Athens Olympics, with the world's eyes on Greece,
the issue of the Elgin Marbles has exploded all over again.
The basics of the case remain the same.
200 years ago, Lord Elgin took about half of the marble sculptures that survived on the Parthenon,
the ancient Greek monument that for 2,500 years has occupied the rock of the Acropolis in Athens.
These marbles, the Elgin Marbles,
are now on display in London in the British Museum, and Greece wants them back.
I've always loved the Elgin Marbles but, until today, I've never visited the Parthenon itself
and, although it's a bit of a building site, packed with tourists,
seeing it for the first time is a breathtaking experience.
It's a golden monument to the golden age of Ancient Greek civilisation,
the civilisation that gave us democracy, philosophy, drama, comedy, tragedy.
But to many modern Greeks, this site is itself the scene of a tragedy - the loss of the Marbles.
The Elgin Marbles controversy has often generated more heat than light.
I wanted to get at the facts behind the arguments. Just what is it that makes the Marbles matter so much?
What gives them their power to rouse such passions?
How do they come to be in London rather than Athens? Should they be returned to Greece?
Controversy has always surrounded the Elgin Marbles.
In 1816, 14 years after Elgin took the sculptures,
dissenting voices had become so loud that the government appointed a parliamentary select committee
to uncover precisely what had happened and to question the man at the centre of the storm.
A man whose life, circumstances and appearance had dramatically changed.
You will be pleased to state your name and title.
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.
Your Lordship will be pleased to state the circumstances
under which you became possessed of this collection
and of the authority you received for taking the Marbles from Athens.
Elgin had reached rock bottom.
He was penniless, his reputation was in tatters
and he was afflicted by a mysterious wasting disease that was devouring his nose.
To him, it must have seemed incredible
that events had turned out this way. After all, it had all begun so differently, 17 years earlier.
In 1799, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, stood on the brink of a brilliant public career.
He was, of course, Earl of Elgin when he was five years old.
So he realised that he had a position, as it were,
but it was made absolutely clear to him that he didn't have any money
so he'd better be highly educated.
He had been educated as a boy in Harrow,
had gone to university in St Andrews and then had gone to Paris.
Very much brought up as a proper gentleman, young but experienced and with some success.
This ambitious Scotsman had mastered three careers by his early 30s.
In the Army, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, despite never having seen military action.
In politics, he had taken up an elected seat in the House of Lords,
attending in London whenever he could find the time.
In international diplomacy, he had shown great promise as ambassador to Vienna, Brussels and Berlin.
So Elgin seemed the obvious choice for the British Government
to send to Constantinople, now Istanbul, as British Ambassador to the mighty Turkish Ottoman Empire.
It's absolutely clear that he was in some senses on the make
when he went to get this job in Constantinople.
Indeed, he quite actively canvassed for himself to get the job.
He was grabbing his chances.
There were, I think, six ambassadorships in those days of the great powers of Europe of the time.
So, if he had made a success of that job, then the sky's the limit.
He could've come back and chosen whatever career he wanted.
In the late 18th century, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was one of the great powers of the world,
controlling most of the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Balkans and the north African coast.
Its tentacles even reached as far as Greece,
which the Ottomans had controlled for nearly 400 years.
The Ottoman control of Greece caught the attention of the neoclassical architect Thomas Harrison.
Harrison happened to be building Elgin's new country pile here in Scotland, Broom Hall,
and it was Harrison who really fired Elgin's passion for Ancient Greece
and, in the process, changed his life forever.
The idea was first suggested to me in the year 1799 -
at the period of my nomination to the embassy at Constantinople - by Mr Thomas Harrison, an architect
who was working for me in Scotland. And his observation was that,
though the public was in possession of everything to give them a general knowledge of the remains of Athens,
yet they had nothing to convey the specifics of the antiquities to artists. He suggested
that casts of the originals would add greatly to such an understanding.
Harrison's interest in Ancient Greece was very much of the moment.
In 19th century Europe, there was Grecomania.
People were absolutely obsessed with the ancient world.
Obsession with the idea that there was this perfect Classical past,
an idealism you could look back to and live up to.
Indeed, for 19th-century Europeans,
Ancient Greece marked nothing less than the birth of Western civilisation.
In the city of Athens in the 5th century BC,
there had been a remarkable flowering of politics and culture
that laid the foundations of philosophy, medicine, science, theatre and democracy.
Athens in the 5th century BC was seen as a golden age.
One of the things that's prompting a fascination with the Classical at the turn of the 19th century
is the beginning of real exploration of the Greek and Roman worlds that starts with the Grand Tour to Italy.
By the late 18th century, what you're opening up is direct contact with Greece itself
and that means with the art and architecture.
And there was an expectation that untold artistic and architectural riches would be found there.
It was hardly surprising that Elgin jumped at Harrison's suggestion.
I sought to make my embassy to Constantinople
beneficial to the progress of the fine arts in Great Britain,
to bestow some benefit towards the progress of taste in England,
towards the advancement of literature and the arts.
Fine motives. It was Elgin's plan that while he went to Constantinople on diplomatic business,
his artists would go to Athens to draw, measure and study the ancient remains.
There was no talk of actually removing anything from the ruins.
Like so many other men of the Enlightenment caught up in the mania for all things Greek,
Elgin sincerely believed that drawings and casts of Ancient Greek art and architecture
could transform British taste, and come in handy when it came to decorating his new house.
Elgin pursued the plan with missionary zeal. Such was his enthusiasm,
he decided to fund the project himself when the government rejected his request for public money.
Ideas would come to him and he would take them to the full. He moved very quickly, he adored going fast.
If he saw the opportunity, he took it, regardless of cost.
On the 3rd September 1799, Elgin sailed from Portsmouth for Constantinople.
It was the start of an exciting adventure.
Elgin believed that he was embarking on a glittering international career.
Little did he know that this expedition would lead to his ruin.
On board ship were two people who would play a crucial role in Elgin's future
and would, in their way, prove to be his undoing.
The Reverend Philip Hunt was Elgin's chaplain and secretary.
Philip Hunt is certainly, in his own words, on the make. He believes that going to be chaplain to Elgin
will bring him fame and fortune. And paradoxically it has, but not in the way that Hunt would've imagined.
Mary Nisbett, Elgin's new 22-year-old wife was also making the long journey to Constantinople.
She had the enormous advantage
of being extremely wealthy and Elgin, though probably not as impoverished as he would always like to claim,
was constantly short of the ready, and Mary was an extremely good catch.
She wrote brilliant letters home and she relished every moment of it.
He could be quite withdrawn because he felt that, as the ambassador,
you should show certain elements - dignity and so forth.
But they made an extremely happy and industrious pair.
All Elgin now needed to achieve his ambitions were artists who could carry out his plans in Athens.
During a stopover in Sicily,
Elgin hired the Italian landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri and sailed on to Constantinople.
Lusieri hand-picked a team of artists in Italy and sailed for Athens,
arriving in July 1800.
The town they found was a far cry from the reputed glories of Ancient Greece.
After nearly 400 years of Turkish Ottoman rule, Athens was down at heel and impoverished.
But the artists were not disappointed
for, even in their sorry state,
the ruins of Athens still had sufficient power to reconnect them to the ancient past.
In the 5th century BC, at the height of the glory of Ancient Athens,
Pericles, the political leader of the city,
had ordered an extensive building programme on the sacred rock of the Acropolis.
In the space of 15 years, the most impressive building of all was constructed. The Parthenon.
It was a lavish spectacle,
an enormous and elegant temple carved from white marble,
probably decorated with coloured paint.
The Parthenon is a stunningly beautiful building.
Location, location, location. First of all, you couldn't get a better site - on the top of the Acropolis,
overlooking the Mediterranean and the city of Athens.
But it was also a remarkable artistic achievement, built with extraordinary luxury and care.
The Parthenon's a fantastically impressive architectural achievement,
one of the most beautiful and influential buildings ever created.
But it's also a building that brings us face to face
with the sheer distance that separates us from the world of Ancient Greece.
Just what did this building mean? What did it say to 5th-century Athenians? What was it for?
The Parthenon, in simple terms, is a temple of Athens's patron goddess, Athena.
It was built to house the most stupendous statue of the goddess Athena that had ever been made,
a gold and ivory statue.
But it's absolutely clear that the Parthenon is a bit like Fort Knox.
It's a kind of storehouse of treasure and cash.
And much of that cash comes from the profits of Athens' empire.
In the space of 30 years, Athens had risen to become the greatest power in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the early decades of the 5th century BC the Persians had invaded.
They'd actually occupied the Athenian Acropolis, they trashed it, they'd vandalised the place.
The Athenians had pushed them back into their homelands in Asia
and they set up a sort of protection racket whereby they guarded the most vulnerable Greek cities
in return for this annual tribute.
And Pericles popularises himself by making this offer -
we've got money to spend, let's spend it.
After the Persian wars, Athens needed to be rebuilt.
It used the money from its own empire to glorify the city.
It is without doubt the case that the Parthenon was built from the spoils of empire
and, to many people looking at it, it remains a symbol of empire.
Given its huge scale and its prominent position up on the rock of the Acropolis,
it's pretty clear that the Parthenon was a vivid symbol
of Athenian wealth and self-confidence, of the city's power and glory.
And its message was enhanced by the mass of marble sculpture that once decorated the building.
The Parthenon was adorned with more sculpture than any Classical temple before.
These works were designed and their creation supervised by the celebrated sculptor Thiddeas.
It was these carvings that would attract the attention of Lord Elgin in the 19th century.
There were three types of sculpture on the Parthenon.
At each end of the building, full-scale, 3-D figures stood on the triangular pediments.
The sculptures of the pediments are two stories to do with Athena and Athens, patriotic myths -
the birth of Athena, and the contest between Athena and the sea god Poseidon
as to which of them will be the presiding deity over Athens.
On each side of the building ran a set of sculpted panels
called "met-opes", or "metop-es", depicting four mythic Greek victories.
All the metopes show all kinds of conflicts between, for example, centaurs, the half-man, half-horse,
barbarous creatures who often stood for barbarity,
a symbol of Athens's defeat of the Persians.
And there was a magnificent frieze around the top of the inner wall,
where it must've been rather hard to see.
It would seem almost like an act of madness to have put such a detailed piece of sculpture in that position.
If people from the ground can't see it properly, who can?
I don't think it's ridiculous to think that the deity for whom this has been created has got eyes,
she can see everything.
It's terribly unclear what it actually represents.
We can see that it's representing a procession of some sort,
which culminates over the main door of the Parthenon
with a rather unprepossessing piece of cloth apparently being handed from one person to another.
But what actually this was, in terms of ritual or festival or myth, has been intensely debated.
Some believe it shows the annual festival celebrating the city of Athens and the goddess Athena.
Others favour a mythic sacrifice from Athens's early history,
or it could be a commemoration of the defeat of the Persians.
Whichever of the various interpretations is being given of the Parthenon frieze,
they all say something about the legendary genealogy of Athens as a city.
The events are special to this city.
Why do the Elgin Marbles matter, what makes them so great and so compelling?
Well, I think it's partly the way in which they miraculously plunge you back 2,500 years
into this thrilling, alien, extraordinary culture which is, above all, the culture of the hero.
These are figures in a procession, but they collectively embody
the military might of Athens in a very romantic way.
The artist responsible, Thiddeas, and his team have conjured up this fantastic surging cavalcade,
this multitude of men and horses, using the most minimal of technical means.
Sometimes the horses are carved six deep and yet the artists have done this
within no more than two inches of marble, so it's a great act of carving.
But the reason why these battered blocks of stone
occupy the central place in the history of civilisation that they do,
is because they represent the alpha, the beginning of the entire Western art tradition.
The Greeks in the time of Pericles were the first to create believable realistic images of the human body.
And more than that, they endowed that figure with a consciousness, with an emotional life.
This is a great frieze of emotions.
You have diffidence, determination, melancholy, fear.
And that sense of a story being told through figures that express emotions,
that is the basis of Western art.
The Romans took it from the Greeks, the Renaissance rediscovered it, we've inherited it.
It's the basis for our dominant language of visual culture - the cinema, television.
So this procession might have begun in the 5th century BC,
but it's marched all the way forward into the 21st century.
It is, in fact, a miracle that these wonderful pieces of sculpture still survive at all.
Long before Elgin's artists arrived in Athens, a series of invading empires captured the city
and made the Parthenon their own.
With the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century AD, the Parthenon was converted into a church
with some structural alteration and the defacement of many sculptures.
And in the 15th century, with the occupation of the Ottoman Turks,
it was turned into a Muslim mosque, complete with minaret.
Then, in 1687, disaster struck.
A fleet of Venetian ships had landed on the Aegean coast to the west of the city.
A Venetian army was laying siege to Athens from Philipappou Hill.
The Turks had placed all of their gunpowder stores in the Parthenon, along with 300 women and children,
believing the Venetians would never dare to attack such a venerated monument. But the Turks were wrong.
The Venetians set up their cannon on this spot and aimed directly at the Parthenon.
The gunpowder store took a direct hit and the whole building exploded,
bringing down the roof, tearing a huge gap in the long colonnades and destroying half of the sculpture.
From this moment, the Parthenon was a standing ruin.
This was the building that greeted Elgin's artists in 1800,
a new mosque had been built in the middle of the ruin, and a shanty town had sprung up around it.
The artists climbed the Acropolis to start work, but immediately met with difficulty.
The problem about working on the Acropolis was that it was the garrison
and, so, getting permission to work, draw or do anything there
would be a bit akin to investigate antiquities inside a modern British Army base.
You can't just walk in, you have to be allowed in.
There were two Turkish officials in control of the Acropolis.
The Voivode was the governor of Athens. The Dizdar was the military commander of the garrison.
They immediately blocked the progress of Elgin's men.
For several months my artists had no access to the Acropolis, well, except for the purpose of drawing,
and that at an expense of five guineas a day.
-That lasted from August 1800 until the month of April 1801.
-That limited access lasted about nine months?
-What was the nature of the objections on the part of the Turks?
Their general jealousy and enmity to every Christian of every denomination.
They rested it upon that general objection?
Upon the general enmity to what they called Christian dogs.
That was not the manner in which they stated their objection?
No, but that is the fact. It was always refused.
-Without reasons assigned. Everyone on the spot knew what those reasons were.
They would not give any facility to anything that was not Turkish.
Yet within a year, scaffolding had been erected and workmen were removing the Parthenon sculptures.
How on earth had Elgin managed to overcome Turkish objections so quickly?
The answer is a combination of war, diplomacy and sheer luck.
While his artists were attempting to gain entry to the Acropolis,
Elgin had arrived in Constantinople where he was settling into his role
as Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty
to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey. They don't make job descriptions like that any more.
Elgin had been sent to Constantinople
on an important political mission.
Britain had been at war with France since 1793
and the British Government was keen to usurp France's position as the Ottoman Empire's main European ally.
Elgin could not have arrived at a more propitious moment.
When Elgin arrived,
the French had just invaded Egypt, under General Bonaparte,
which was still a province of the Ottoman Empire.
Nelson quite shortly afterwards at the Battle of The Nile defeated the French.
So Elgin, as the representative of the country which had restored one of her main provinces,
was in tremendously high esteem. He could've asked for all sorts of things and been given them.
-The objections disappeared from the moment of the decided success of our arms in Egypt?
The whole system of Turkish feeling met with a...revolution.
The Turkish government, in return for our services in Egypt,
did offer the British Government every public concession.
They were in a disposition that... I conceive they would've granted anything that could've been asked.
It was at this fortuitous moment that Elgin's chaplain and secretary,
the Reverend Philip Hunt, arrived in Constantinople
fresh from a visit to Athens.
Hunt was the key agent in the whole affair.
Elgin was reliant on reports from Athens. Hunt had been there
and said, "You have to get permission that will allow your artistic objectives to be achieved."
What was needed was a document called a firman.
This was an official permission granted by the Turkish government.
Hunt dictated exactly what the firman should authorise.
I recommended that the firman should give to His Excellency,
and the artists employed by him, the most extensive permission
to view, draw and model the ancient temples and the sculptures upon them...
and to make excavations and to take away any stones that might appear interesting to them.
The request to excavate and remove anything that Elgin's men might find
was a decisive moment. It marked a real escalation of Elgin's original ambition,
which had simply been to record and measure the remains on the Acropolis.
But there was still no mention of removing anything from the building itself, only from the excavations.
The Turks, eager to please Elgin and England, issued the firman immediately,
granting everything that Hunt had asked. For them, the firman was one more gift among many,
another gesture in the elaborate courtship dance of diplomacy.
Hunt left Constantinople and took the firman to Athens,
where he immediately presented it to the Voivode, the governor of the town.
When it was read out to the Voivode of Athens,
he seemed disposed to gratify any wish of mine with respect to the pursuit of Lord Elgin's artists.
Work started immediately.
Excavations began and scaffolding was built so plaster casts could be taken of the Parthenon sculptures.
Then, on 31st July 1801, the plan changed.
Hunt made a radical request that would mark a major turning point
in the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles.
I asked the Voivode permission to detach from the Parthenon
the most perfect and, as it appeared to me, the most beautiful metope.
I obtained that permission and acted upon it immediately.
Workmen climbed the scaffolding, detached and slowly lowered the best-preserved metope.
When I saw those beautiful statues hanging in the air,
I was seized with a trembling and palpitation which only ceased when they arrived safe to the ground.
The collection of the Elgin Marbles had begun.
In Constantinople, Elgin was delighted with the news
and immediately sent orders not only to copy, mould and dig,
but to take as much as possible.
The first on the list are the figures on the pediment of the Parthenon,
as many metopes as you can obtain, some further fragments of frieze and some ornaments.
To sum up, the slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel.
Elgin got what he wanted.
Gangs of local Greeks were hired.
Many of the coveted marbles scattered by the explosion of 1687 were excavated,
but others were physically removed from the Parthenon itself.
When it came to the east pediment, there were figures in place, and those Elgin's men removed.
He also removed stretches of the north frieze and the south frieze
and 14 metopes from the south side of the building.
In the case of the frieze, they had to lower the blocks themselves
to the ground
and saw the back part of this very heavy block
and remove the sculpture which was on the outside surface.
So, of course, the destruction to the monument itself was huge.
When they found that the metopes were covered by architectural pieces in which they were embedded,
the architectural pieces were simply thrown to the ground and smashed.
What Elgin did was an outrage of vandalism.
Within ten months, more than half of the Parthenon sculptures
that were to form the Elgin Marbles had been collected and packed up.
These were riches beyond Elgin's wildest dreams.
All this amounted to a truly radical change of approach on the part of Elgin.
What had begun as an artistic endeavour - drawing, measuring, taking casts,
had turned into wholesale plunder, the removal of some of the greatest sculptures of Ancient Greece.
What lay behind Elgin's extraordinary change of plan?
Before the select committee 14 years later, Elgin gave his side of the story.
The Turkish government attached no importance to the sculptures.
Indeed, the Turks had been continually defacing the heads.
And in some instances, they had actually acknowledged to me
that they had powdered down the sculptures to convert them into mortar.
A very great destruction was taking place.
It was upon these suggestions and with these feelings that I proceeded to remove
as many of the sculptures as I conveniently could.
It was no part of my original plan to take away anything but models.
Elgin was very keen on stressing that the sculpture was being saved.
Now, there is no doubt that that's true, whatever his motive was.
There's no question that Elgin performed one of the greatest acts
of conservation rescue in history.
If you look in the British Museum at the west pediment sculptures,
essentially four sculptures that Elgin took,
50 years earlier, there had been 12 sculptures on that pediment.
And 125 years earlier, there'd been 20.
It was said at the time that the Turks broke off pieces for mortar,
but that may not have been fully accurate.
The main destruction that was occurring was from Western tourists
who bribed the soldiers to break pieces off.
The Parthenon suffered very, very badly during the last quarter of the 18th century before Elgin.
But should we take Elgin entirely at his word? He later claimed that the idea of rescue occurred to him
when he visited Athens for the first time in 1802 and saw the damage that was being done.
"Then and only then did I employ means to rescue what remained from a similar fate."
But the removals had actually started a year earlier in 1801,
so his justification begins to sound like something concocted with the benefit of hindsight.
Is it possible that Lord Elgin could've had other, less noble motives?
I think there's no doubt that when Elgin originally commenced his removal of the Marbles
that the seed idea in his mind had been
that these would go not to a museum, but to decorate his home.
Broom Hall is a subject that occupies me greatly
and offers me the means of placing in a useful, distinguished and agreeable way
the various things that you may perhaps be able to procure for me.
There is of course a lot of talk about marble being removed
and how he did want to engulf it in the actual design of his ballroom or this room or that room,
but it is not quite clear whether this would have been the sculptures themselves.
On the other hand, we do have all of this mention of "my acquisitions,
"my property, my marbles, please send them to my address", so it was very personal.
Elgin had never intended to house the Parthenon sculptures in Broom Hall.
He brought the Parthenon sculptures back
to revitalise the arts in England.
This was an entirely unselfish act of a generous Georgian gentleman.
It would be very essential that the artist should be able to take away exact models
of little ornaments or detached pieces, if any are found, which would be interesting for the arts.
The very great variety in our manufactures in objects either of elegance or luxury
offers a thousand applications for such details.
I have one problem
in having to believe that he was a lover of the arts.
I simply cannot imagine a lover of the arts
allowing saws to attack some of the greatest works ever made.
That's... I couldn't do that.
I don't think anybody could do it... to actually do that.
I think the most likely thing is that Elgin,
like any of us, was motivated by a number of different impulses.
The truth is, we'll never know for sure exactly what drove him.
While there'd be uproar if anyone today tried to do the same thing,
it's important not to judge Elgin by the standards of the present.
You have to see the man in the context of his own time.
If we look at what was happening in Lord Elgin's time,
everyone was a Lara Croft, everyone was an Indiana Jones -
individual English, French, German people going around the world, collecting up any nice material
and bringing it home to their stately piles or national museums.
This was the norm.
Many people took home pots, many people took home bits of rock.
Elgin went for the whole hog.
He was an ambitious man, he was a man who saw the chance to take something of extraordinary power and did so.
Elgin became gripped by the rage of possession.
He even wrote, in slightly chilling words, "I shall regret nothing that assists my acquisitions in Greece."
At one point, he even considered the scheme
of taking the entire Erechtheion down and transporting it to England.
He was only put off the idea when he couldn't find a boat big enough to carry it,
so he just removed one of the female figures. His collection was fast becoming an obsession.
Elgin finally made the trip to Athens in spring 1802
to see the site for himself. He was delighted with the progress.
Elgin decided that his work in the Ottoman Empire was done.
He'd succeeded in his diplomatic mission of bringing Britain and the Ottoman Turks into alliance
and he'd more than fulfilled his ambition of returning to Britain with casts of the Athenian remains.
It was time to return home.
Elgin and his family set sail for Britain,
leaving instructions for the transport of the Marbles from Athens to London,
an operation that was to prove far more difficult than he'd anticipated.
It was easy to get the Marbles to the nearby port of Piraeus,
but it was very difficult to find ships' captains willing to take such heavy cargo across dangerous seas.
Elgin did manage to load some of his Marbles onto ships bound for England,
but for some of the most precious pieces he had to use his own ship, the Mentor,
a decision that resulted in disaster.
On the 17th September 1802, the Mentor hit a rock in a storm and sank.
She was carrying 17 cases of Marbles, including 14 pieces of the frieze.
They lay at the bottom of the sea for over two years while Elgin spent £5,000,
a small fortune in modern money, on the lengthy and hazardous salvage operation.
That was just the start of Elgin's problems.
His homecoming was to prove more or less totally catastrophic.
He was hit by a series of extraordinary calamities which, between them, conspired to ruin him.
For a start, Elgin's health was destroyed by his embassy to Constantinople.
He was afflicted by plagues, fevers and rheumatism while in the East.
He got what nowadays we call a melanoma, a cancer,
and because it was on his nose he couldn't not keep touching it and it developed very much more severely
until he had to have part of the nose cut away,
so he must have been quite disfigured.
Elgin's finances also lay in ruins.
He was paying for the removals in Athens with money that wasn't actually his own.
Elgin was a bit out of the picture and so his agents had to borrow the money at high interest rates
against Elgin's estates and the credibility of the British Government,
and so the agents could raise almost unlimited credit.
The original estimated cost of the artists' work in Athens was roughly £1,200 a year
but, after only 18 months, Elgin had spent nearly £40,000,
just over a million today.
Then, on the way home from Constantinople, Elgin made a big mistake.
He decided to make a detour via Paris,
not knowing that war had just broken out again between Britain and France.
Elgin was detained as a prisoner of war
and was kept under house arrest in France for three years.
This confinement was to have disastrous consequences for both his career and his marriage.
When he'd negotiated his release, he'd done a very specific deal with the French authorities,
which is that he would be prepared to come back to France if ever summoned.
Now, this put paid to his chances of a further ambassadorial job.
So, although he gets out, he gets out to become unemployable in terms of governmental employment.
Then, when Elgin did return home in 1806, he discovered that his wife Mary was having an affair
with their neighbour in Scotland, Robert Ferguson.
Elgin had secured Mary's release from France a year earlier when their fourth child had died.
Back in London, Mary had turned to Ferguson for comfort.
Whether that's the whole story one may doubt,
because Elgin was suffering from syphilis.
It is a symptom of syphilis that it enters the bone and part of the nose just withers away.
The remedies which he was taking, mercury, are those for syphilis.
Elgin divorced Mary in a highly publicised court case
and her considerable fortune reverted to her - another blow to his finances.
Elgin must've wondered how it had all gone so badly wrong - in debt,
career over, publicly shamed and facially disfigured.
He suffered from the curse of the Parthenon.
Because of his obsession with the Marbles, he ended up ruining himself financially.
He had that classic archaeological curse that destroyed him, destroyed the man.
Elgin had just one trump card left to play - the Marbles themselves. Having carted them across Europe,
Elgin seems to have been unsure about what to do with the Marbles.
He seems to have abandoned the idea of installing them at Broom Hall
and he toyed with the notion of donating them to the British Government as a gift to the nation.
In the end, he borrowed even more money and had them installed in a purpose-built museum
which he had constructed in the garden of a house at the corner of Old Park Lane and Piccadilly.
The place where Londoners first gathered to see the greatest stone carvings of Ancient Greece
is now, aptly, The Hard Rock Cafe.
The collection of Marbles was opened to an invited public in June 1807.
The reaction was electric.
It was at that moment
that they ceased to be decoration of a temple and became works of art.
These artists came and they suddenly realised that they were face to face with superb things
which had never been so fully appreciated before.
For the first time,
it was possible to see real Greek sculpture on a massive scale.
It was the event of the season and it had the effect that Elgin wanted -
it changed the view of art in the West.
Before the arrival of the Elgin Marbles,
the models of Classical perfection were elegant Roman copies of Greek originals like the Apollo Belvedere.
These had been restored and were in pristine condition.
The battered, weathered Greek originals were, by contrast, shockingly direct.
The difference of the Parthenon sculptures from the Roman copies that people were used to seeing
was, instead of this rather bland, academic, idealised form, they saw people in action,
there was so much more action and energy and sense of reality in these figures.
Elgin's invited audience was astonished and delighted by the sculptures' vitality and naturalism.
The Marbles became the talk of London.
Artists flocked to study and draw them.
A boxer was paid to pose beside them for two hours,
his anatomy proving just how lifelike their muscular realism was.
And the leading actress of the day, Sarah Siddons, was so moved
that she burst into a storm of theatrical tears.
The Elgin Marbles were a hit.
But there was one group in society who weren't at all impressed - the art connoisseurs.
Their chief spokesman was Richard Payne-Knight, an art historian whose first printed work,
an essay on phallus worship, had been withdrawn from publication.
He and his fellow connoisseurs
were deeply disappointed by the Marbles' dirty, chipped and fragmentary condition.
Payne-Knight condemned the Marbles out of hand.
You have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin. Your Marbles are over-rated.
They are not Greek, they are Roman, of the time of Hadrian.
Payne-Knight's announcement that the Marbles were Roman not Greek
spread through London, casting some doubt on the legitimacy of Elgin's collection.
But criticism of Elgin was about to turn far nastier and far more personal thanks to one man -
mad, bad and dangerous to know, the poet Lord Byron.
In 1809, Byron aged 22,
visited Athens and was appalled by the damage done to the Parthenon.
To Byron, Elgin was a despoiler of Greece's proud heritage,
robbing modern Greeks of their glorious past.
He launched a blistering attack in verse.
Cold as the crags upon his native coast
His mind as barren His heart as hard is he
Whose head conceived Whose hand prepared ought To displace Athena's poor remains.
The important thing for us about Byron is that it's his poetry, really,
that has set the tone for our understanding of Elgin
as a plunderer, a villain, a Scottish desperado and all the rest.
Elgin's situation was desperate.
He was forced to contemplate the only option open to him - selling his collection.
Elgin proposed the government buy the Marbles for the nation,
asking just enough to cover the cost of bringing them back to Britain.
The British Government was extremely uneasy about Elgin's proposal.
For one thing, he was asking for £70,000, around £3 million today.
To us, it might seem like the art bargain of all time,
but, in the early 19th century, people just didn't pay stratospheric amounts for works of art.
You could buy a Michelangelo or Raphael for a fraction of the price.
Secondly, there was the question of Elgin's timing, which was truly abysmal.
He made his proposal on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, as the Napoleonic wars reached a climax.
To make matters worse, ever since Byron's smear campaign,
questions had been asked about Elgin's right to take the Marbles.
Were they legally his? Or was he just a fence peddling stolen goods?
In 1816, the parliamentary select committee set out to get to the heart of the matter.
Did the permission specifically refer to removing the statues, or was that left at discretion?
No, it was executed by means of those general permissions granted.
The permission was to draw, model and remove.
There was a specific permission to excavate.
There is a considerable difference between to excavate and remove and to remove and to excavate.
The question was not whether Your Lordship was permitted to remove what you should find on excavation,
but whether Your Lordship was permitted to remove from the wall.
I WAS at liberty to remove from the wall. The permission was to remove, generally.
Was there a specific permission alluding to the statues particularly?
I do not know whether it specified the statues or whether it was a general power to remove.
Elgin's answers were deeply ambiguous,
as though he wasn't too sure about the exact terms of the firman. But that's hardly surprising
since there's still significant disagreement about what the firman did or didn't allow
and about whether Elgin acted legally or not.
Elgin behaved entirely legally within the terms of the firman.
The Sultan said he could take any old bits of old stone he liked,
and by old stone the Sultan meant ancient sculpture, that was the term the Ottomans used for them.
There is a specific sentence in the middle of the document,
saying that under no occasion is there going to be any harm to the monuments themselves.
So that's quite different than what really happened,
which was the removal of a large amount of sculpture from the monument itself.
The problem is that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the wording of the firman.
In some places, it's relatively clear, specifying, for example, that artists be allowed to...
"dig the foundations to find inscribed blocks among the rubbish,
"particularly as there is no harm in the said buildings being examined, contemplated and drawn."
Now, that's clear enough. But then it finishes by ordering that,
"No opposition be made to the taking away of some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures."
Which pieces of stone? The whole lot? It's just not clear.
But there was one important witness to the select committee
who suggested that the terms of the firman had indeed been exceeded -
the Reverend Philip Hunt.
Hunt had never been paid by Elgin for his work in the East and the two men were no longer close.
The man who had instigated the removals from the Parthenon
was about to contradict his former employer.
Was the tenor of the firman so full and explicit as to convey upon the face of it
the right to displace and take away whatever the artists might have a fancy to?
Not "whatever" the artists might have a fancy to.
Do you imagine the firman gave a direct permission
to remove figures and pieces of sculpture from the walls of temples?
That was the interpretation that the Voivode of Athens was...
induced to allow it to bear.
Was there any difficulty in persuading the Voivode to give this interpretation to the firman?
Not a great deal of difficulty.
Hunt threatened the local authorities -
the governor and the military governor.
He said, "You'll lose your job." In fact, "You'll go to the galleys," he said to one person.
He also paid them a lot of money.
Was there any sum of money given to the Voivode anterior to his interpretation of the firman?
Presents were given to him at the time of presenting the firman but I'm not aware of more being given.
Can you form any idea of the value of the presents you gave?
I cannot now. They consisted of brilliant cut-glass lustres,
firearms and other articles of English manufacture.
He paid the military governor of the Acropolis, in the first year alone,
sums equivalent to 35 times his annual salary.
Now, very few systems can withstand that weight of money and pressure.
But regardless of whether Hunt used bribery or whether the terms of the firman were exceeded,
the Turkish authorities knew exactly what was happening on the Acropolis
and could have intervened at any time if they had objected.
Did the Turkish government know Your Lordship was removing these statues under the permission you obtained?
No doubt was ever expressed to me of their knowledge of it.
The thing was done publicly before the whole world.
I employed 300 or 400 people a day.
All the local authorities were concerned in it as well as the Turkish government.
I conclude that they must have been in intimate knowledge of everything that was doing.
But the question of legality was not the only concern of the select committee.
They also wanted to know if Elgin had abused his office as Ambassador.
Had he secured the Marbles as a British Government representative or as a private individual?
Were the Marbles Elgin's to sell? Or did they, in fact, already belong to Britain?
Does Your Lordship believe, to the best of your judgement,
that you obtained in your character as Ambassador any authority for removing these Marbles
which Your Lordship would not have obtained in your private capacity?
I certainly consider that I obtained no authority as given to me in my official capacity.
This was a personal favour, granted quite extra-officially to me.
And asked as such?
Asked as such, and granted as such.
Was the same permission to erect scaffolding and make excavations given to other persons at Athens?
I believe the permission granted to me was the same in substance and in purport as granted to other persons,
with the difference of the extent of means and an unlimited use of money.
I did not receive more as Ambassador than anyone else received.
Other witnesses begged to differ.
Do you think that ANY British subject, not in the situation of Ambassador,
-would have been able to obtain from the Turkish government a firman of such extensive powers?
In your opinion, was this permission given to Lord Elgin
entirely in consequence of the situation he held as British Ambassador?
I'm inclined to think such a permission would not have been asked for
by any person NOT an ambassador of a highly favoured ally. Nor granted to any other individual.
Next, the committee turned their attention to the artistic worth and monetary value of the Marbles.
They wanted to be sure they weren't buying duff goods.
A selection of artists and sculptors appeared before the committee.
What is your opinion of those Marbles as to the excellency of the work?
They are the finest things that ever came to this country.
Works of such prime importance could not remain in the country without improving the public taste.
In what class of art do you place the finest works in this collection?
I rate them of the first class of art.
The artists all gave glowing praise.
Then Richard Payne-Knight was called to give the opinion of the detractors.
It proved to be an uncomfortable encounter.
In what class of art do you place the finest works in this collection?
I should put them in the second rank.
I think some were added in the time of Hadrian, from the style of them.
Upon what authority do you state that a great part of these Marbles belong to the time of Hadrian?
From no other authority but the writings of Spon and Wheeler.
Do you not recollect that Spon and Wheeler's observations were exceedingly loose
-and in some cases wholly inaccurate?
-Very loose, certainly.
-And in some cases wholly inaccurate.
It is a long while since I read them.
After two weeks, the select committee retired to make its deliberations.
Its conclusions were good news for Elgin.
The committee's report affirmed the artistic worth of the Marbles
but, more importantly, it cleared Elgin himself of any wrongdoing.
It stated that, since the Turks had known exactly what was going on,
Elgin had had every right to remove the Marbles and it stated that he'd acted as a private individual.
Given the somewhat conflicting nature of the evidence, that now seems, perhaps, a little surprising.
But then again, it's in the great tradition of the British parliamentary report.
However, there was one disappointment for Elgin.
The report recommended a price of £35,000,
only half of what he'd spent and asked for.
But Elgin had no choice but to agree to the sale.
Finally, he was rid of the Marbles that had obsessed him for 15 years
and wrecked his life.
The Marbles, now called the Elgin Marbles, were entrusted to the British Museum in 1816
where they became the star attraction. More than 1,000 people a day flocked to see them there
and their influence began to be felt in the arts, much as Elgin had hoped.
The Marbles had an enormous effect on British, and Western, art.
You only have to walk round the streets of London now
to see the varieties of replicas of the Marbles from the Parthenon
or female formed column, the caryatid, that Elgin brought back from the Erechtheion.
They really do launch a whole set of British artistic and literary responses.
Ancient Athens came to be seen as the one true model for any civilised democratic society
and 19th-century Britons, filled with the self-confidence of Empire, came to see themselves
as the only true living heirs to the great Classical past.
When it came to redesigning the building that was to house their treasure, the Elgin Marbles,
they gave it the form of a modern Parthenon, as if to underline their belief
that, while London may not have been the place of origin of the Marbles, it had become their spiritual home.
But Lord Elgin's own fate was not as happy as that of his Marbles.
Although the report had cleared his name, Elgin never really fully recovered.
Elgin is a tragic figure, in a way,
because he devoted his life to this one enterprise and it brought him down and ruined him and his family.
Towards the end of his life, the house had to be closed up and he lived in a corner of it.
His sons had to go abroad to try and retrieve the fortune.
It's very hard to know how to remember Elgin. He was certainly not as bad, nor as good, as he's painted.
You have to judge him really by the...the effect.
The effect is, for better or worse, he saved for humanity a lot of sculptures that we value very highly
and in some ways he was instrumental in changing the course of how Britain engaged with the Classical world.
It's not bad. Whether he did it for good reasons or not is quite another matter.
Elgin died in Paris in 1841 owing £150,000 -
over £6.5m in today's money.
It would take Elgin's heirs decades to pay off his debts.
But the story of the Elgin Marbles was far from over.
The controversy caused by Elgin's actions was just beginning and soon grew to international proportions.
Should they remain here where they've been ever since 1817,
or go back where they came from?
The Greeks ought to be grateful to us
for having preserved their inheritance, and to Lord Elgin too,
and it's a base ingratitude that they try to put this absurd argument on its feet, it won't stand.
They are our ancestry -
they are our cultural heritage.
They are our soul.
I think this is cultural fascism -
it's nationalism and it's cultural danger, enormous cultural danger,
if you start to destroy great intellectual institutions, you're culturally fascist.
The colonial era is over.
Let's find a new way of building our collections.
Nobody's saying "send everything back", but if something shouldn't have been taken in the first place,
if it has to go back, it has to go back.
In 1835, when the British Museum offered the Greek government a set of casts of the Elgin Marbles,
the Greeks replied by saying they'd far rather have the originals back.
There'd been precious few Greek objections when Elgin had taken them 30 years earlier.
So why this sudden change of heart?
The answer was revolution.
While British society had been swooning over the Elgin Marbles,
Greece had been fighting a bloody battle for independence.
There'd been no independent Greek state since the Roman occupation,
and Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.
Dissatisfaction with Turkish rule was fuelled by the stirrings of Greek national consciousness,
and revolution erupted in 1821.
The ensuing war dragged on for six years, when European powers including Britain, France and Russia
intervened, putting an end to Turkish rule.
Modern Greece came into being, although on terms very much laid down by the Western powers.
I think that Greek Classicism
was what urged the foreign powers, apart from politics, of course,
to help the Greeks and their revolution,
and they did help. It wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
Ironically, the removal of the Marbles from Greece
may have actually helped the cause of Greek independence.
There can be no doubt at all that the presence of the Parthenon sculptures in London
was a major factor
in Western European consciousness, that there was a Greek inheritance
which was a European inheritance and which, uniquely, they thought ought not to be under Ottoman control.
So I think Elgin's role in creating free modern Greece is a very important one.
The European mania for all things Ancient Greek is most monumentally visible here in Bavaria.
King Ludwig of Bavaria, who wanted to buy the Marbles from Elgin,
had to content himself with building his very own Parthenon overlooking the Danube - the Valhalla.
But Ludwig's love for Ancient Greece was to be felt much further afield than his own country,
because it was Ludwig's son Otto
who was chosen by the major European powers to be the very first king of modern Greece.
His problem is absolutely clear at that point, which is how do you give some sense of nationhood
to this war-wracked country which had been part of the Ottoman Empire?
And it seems pretty clear that what he opts for is buying in big time
to the 5th-century Classical past of Greece.
One of Otto's first actions as king
was to declare the Acropolis a Greek national monument
in an extravagant ceremony, surrounded by Greek girls bearing wreaths of laurel
and banners emblazoned with the goddess Athena.
Otto tapped three times on one of the columns of the Parthenon.
Modern Greece was born with the Parthenon as its symbolic heart.
The newly-crowned German king of Greece asked the Bavarian architect
who designed the Valhalla to devise a plan for the real Acropolis.
He advised the site should be cleared of any building that didn't date from the Classical period.
This was a vast undertaking, but carried out with typical German efficiency.
When Otto cleared the space of the Acropolis, he was typical of his period.
For him, the only thing that counted was the glorious days of the 5th-century Athens.
So he cleared away everything else.
He took away the Roman buildings, the Byzantine buildings...
It was an act of archaeological vandalism,
but it allowed the national symbol of Greece to arise.
During the early 19th century, the Greeks had begun to rediscover their Classical heritage for themselves,
but there's no denying the whole process was vastly accelerated
by the enthusiasm of Western Europeans, especially the Bavarians.
The Bavarian approach to antiquity was extremely exclusive -
a stripping away that promoted a purified view of the ancient past,
according to which anything that lay outside the golden period of the 5th century BC was classed as barbarous,
degenerate, and the result was a kind of ethnically cleansed view of cultural history.
Now, of course, every new nation needs an identity to hold on to, needs its symbols,
but I also think there's a danger in plucking this one moment,
this 5th-century BC moment,
out of the vast multicultural continuum
of the history of the Greek lands, and elevating it to canonical status.
By wiping out the intervening 2,000 years of history,
there's a risk of disenfranchising all sorts of modern Greek citizens -
Jews, Muslims, whose cultures have also made a contribution to the history of modern Greece.
I think it's very dangerous when culture becomes politicised in this way.
It's a recent development to invest these sculptures with national identity,
as is now done, and I think it's always problematic
when governments attempt to impose on objects
meanings that are essentially political rather than cultural.
Actually, I feel that in their hearts,
and in their genes,
the Greeks always felt a connection to their antiquities and symbols.
It was probably a matter of knowledge. They probably did not know their history,
but they felt very close to it.
Whichever side you take,
there's no denying the current depth of Greek feeling about the Parthenon and about the Marbles.
There's even a set of casts of the Elgin Marbles in the Athens Metro,
a poignant reminder to modern Greeks of all that they've lost.
In recent years, nobody did more to campaign for the Marbles' return
and to link them to the very idea of Greek nationhood
than the actress and Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri.
'I want the Marbles back to the Greeks
'because we have created them,
'because is our identity,'
and because, after all, they belong where they were made.
I think Melina said it very well.
They are our pride, they are a noble symbol of excellence
and they are a thankful tribute to democracy.
That's what all the Greeks feel.
You don't take away a country's pride.
Mercouri's campaign in the 1980s took the issue of the Marbles' return
to an international level, with the result that the debate became even more heated.
Accusations of neglect and maltreatment were thrown by both sides.
In the early 20th century, well-intentioned restoration
of the much-battered Parthenon had caused a good deal of damage.
-Under Nikolaos Balanos, the temple was partially rebuilt.
-It was a disaster.
Instead of using iron clamps - which the Ancient Greeks had used -
that were seated in lead,
they just used iron clamps, and when water gets onto iron it rusts,
it corrodes, it expands, it split the marble, it stained the marble.
Balanos also put the columns up
wherever he thought they looked nice. He didn't worry about original positions.
I mean, he was an over-enthusiastic child
playing with a sort of Lego set of Parthenon blocks.
In order to rectify the damage that Balanos did to the Parthenon,
the Greek authorities have, since 1986, been carrying out extensive painstaking restoration
on the Acropolis.
A lot of our work has to do with the Balanos restoration, of course,
so we have to replace any of these iron connectable elements with the titanium one.
The purpose is to put the original pieces back to the original position,
to increase the stability of the members,
so in that way, we are giving some more years to this famous monument.
The Acropolis restoration project is one of the most respected of its kind in the world.
But they can't solve the greatest danger that now faces the Parthenon -
Athens's extremely high and damaging pollution levels.
Whatever view one takes of the original decision to bring the sculptures to London,
there can be no doubt that those that remained on the Parthenon
have suffered dramatically and seriously from pollution effects,
which is why the Greek authorities have continued Elgin's work and removed most remaining sculptures.
It would be nice to say that the Greeks had removed all the sculptures from the Parthenon
and are caring for it in a museum but they're not. The west frieze is still awaiting restoration
and quite a few of the original 5th-century metopes are still on the building.
One can't even think about returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens
until the Greeks start caring for what they already have.
I'm sure they'd take great care of the Parthenon sculptures if they were returned,
but if you knew a woman was abusing her child, you wouldn't let her adopt another. That's what the Greeks want.
For years, the British could safely say that the Marbles wouldn't have been safe back in Greece,
but as it turned out, they weren't that safe in London either.
On Sunday 25th September 1938,
the director of the British Museum, John Forsdyke, was walking through the basement
when he was surprised to find some of the Marbles in the process of being cleaned. On the bench,
he saw a number of copper tools and a piece of carborundum.
Using metal to clean ancient marble went against every rule of responsible conservation.
Forsdyke called a halt to the cleaning and instituted an inquiry.
The British Museum had accepted an offer from Sir Joseph Du Vine, art dealer and millionaire,
to finance the construction of new exhibition galleries to house the Elgin Marbles.
It was one of those cases
where the will of a multi-millionaire donor and the needs of the museum
didn't entirely coincide,
and it's absolutely clear that Du Vine wanted his marbles to be very nice and white and Classical.
What happened was they were cleaned much too aggressively, as we would now think.
This should never have happened, as the British Museum was the first to recognise.
A great deal of damage was done.
There are quite a number of pieces that were not scraped,
but the trouble is it was the best surviving pieces that were scraped.
You sometimes hear people say, "Oh, just a millimetre here or there",
but if you also say
these are the greatest works of sculpture ever created, your millimetre is quite a lot.
The resulting inquiry discovered that the cleaning had gone on for a year-and-a-half,
and that "the damage which has been caused is obvious and cannot be exaggerated".
There was a failure of trusteeship and a failure of curatorship, but the main scandal, I think,
is that the story which had been traditionally told,
the one of rescue and stewardship, just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
I think it's perhaps better to understand that a lot of this cleaning
was done of backgrounds rather than of the figures themselves,
and that it was a cleaning technique that was used some 20 years later
in Athens itself on the sister building of the Parthenon, the Hephaisteion,
by Greek technicians with the permission of the Greek authorities.
Maybe passions always will run high as far as the Elgin Marbles are concerned,
but I still have the sense that in recent years the terms of the debate have begun to shift,
and arguments on both sides have become a little bit more civilised and a bit less narrowly jingoistic.
People, I think, are now really looking to the future with a degree of objectivity
and the question they're asking themselves is how best to show and to appreciate the Marbles in London
AND in Athens as one of the world's great works of art.
The most important reason for having the Marbles come back to Athens
is to be reunited with the remaining pieces
and create the totality of the remaining sculptural decoration of the Parthenon
to which they belong, of course, conceptually, architecturally,
in any possible way, their context is here.
But the sad truth is that the Parthenon can never be put together again
and roughly half the sculptures have got lost, destroyed, so it's completely impossible
to recover one aesthetic unit - that is a fantasy.
Even those that remain can't go back on the building,
and those that remain are never going to give a proper indication
of the original aesthetic achievement.
When you have two equal halves of a monument
which would join together in hundreds of places,
which even includes individual figures and individual slabs that are split between Athens and London,
then it does seem pretty crazy
not to allow these to be brought even temporarily together.
As part of their push to reunite the Marbles,
the Greek authorities are building a new state of the art museum at the foot of the Acropolis
to house the sculptures left behind by Elgin's agents, along with other antiquities.
When digging the foundations, workmen discovered an important Byzantine archaeological site.
Now excavated, it'll form part of the museum's display.
You start with an excavation that you can see at the bottom of the museum through a glass floor -
an extant excavation that's been taking place recently.
You move up through sculptures from the archaic and Classic periods
as you would've done on the slopes of the Acropolis itself, up to the gallery at the top,
which is the alignment of the Parthenon and the size of the Parthenon.
The big friezes are displayed facing outwards as they were originally
and the pediments and so on are placed around them as originally.
And it offers the nearest, I think, to an opportunity to display them in a recreation of the Parthenon.
Gaping holes will deliberately be left for the Elgin Marbles,
a vivid plea to the British Museum for their return.
The museum is next to Acropolis, and it is a visual connection between the museum and the Acropolis.
Because the Parthenon hall is on the top of the museum,
the visitors can see both the Parthenon and the sculptures.
I think it's the best we can wish for this monument and these sculptures.
But even the new Acropolis museum has faced a barrage of criticism,
-again centring on the issue of care and neglect.
-In order to build this new museum,
the Greeks are now effectively destroying one of the most important archaeological sites in the world,
the ancient centre of Athens, and this museum is being planted on top of it on stilts
which have been driven down into the ground. It's just a great crime against art and history.
Wherever you build a museum near the Acropolis, you'd come across an archaeological site,
so you were damned if you did and damned if you didn't. If there wasn't a new museum, people say,
"Isn't it appalling? You go to the Acropolis and the Parthenon and there's no decent museum."
As soon as you build one, people say you're destroying archaeological remains. Everything I've seen of it,
and the feedback I've had is this is about as good as you could get for a museum on an archaeological site.
With the new museum in sight, it was suggested by the Greeks that the Marbles return on indefinite loan,
with the British Museum retaining stewardship.
The British Museum continues to beware Greeks requesting gifts.
-Its answer is still...no.
-In the British Museum,
the Elgin Marbles are a part of the story of the cultural achievement of humanity,
and if you want to look at what the greatest points in civilisation
of Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome,
India, China, Africa achieved, you can do that in the British Museum.
The Elgin Marbles are a part of that narrative, and it's important for the world that it be told somewhere.
Some claim that the return of the Marbles would have dire consequences for world museums.
That would undoubtedly unleash forces all over the world.
There would be demands for similar returns of sculptures to every great museum,
to the Louvre, to the Metropolitan Museum in New York,
and there would be all the attendant campaigns and agitation and politics would get very much uglier.
There's a very important distinction between the Marbles and any other objects that might be under dispute.
I'm not aware of any other collection of objects
that belongs to an existing famous building like the Parthenon.
It's the equivalent of a couple of the stones from Stonehenge being in a museum somewhere,
where you've the rest of Stonehenge is still there. That's a different argument from other objects,
taken from their original homes, but where the homes have been destroyed.
It's unique in its scale,
it's unique in the precise bisection of what we have,
it's unique in the fact that the building is an icon of a modern nation,
located at the heart of its capital, appearing on every banknote, coin and stamp.
All of which raises the question of whether the Marbles are specifically part of Greek culture,
-or of world culture.
-Ultimately, what is being fought out is - where does the Parthenon belong?
And there two good answers to that, at least.
One good answer is that it belongs in Athens, another good answer is that it belongs where it's ended up,
or at least the sculptures do, in London, and both of those, in some ways,
are negotiating the difficult fact that it's now a monument that belongs to everybody.
Great civilisations belong to the whole world.
Greek civilisation is the inheritance of the whole world.
In the art galleries of Europe, we take it completely for granted
that great masterpieces of one country, great heritage pieces, hang in the galleries of other countries
because they're all part of the European shared inheritance.
The message is - the Greeks are not really our equals.
They may be equal partners in the EU, they may be a country which has been our ally for nearly 200 years,
but we can't really treat them the way we would treat them if, say, it were the French.
Suppose the British Museum had half of the sculpture from Chartres Cathedral,
does anybody believe that 200 years later it would still be in London?
Do we believe that culture is something that unites humanity,
and that we should see humanity as somehow one through its culture?
Or do we want to see culture as what defines and differentiates and separates nations and peoples?
-That is the choice that the world has to make.
-So what should happen to the Elgin Marbles?
Well, I don't think it's my place to pronounce on the matter one way or the other, and the fact is,
that if the arguments weren't strong on both sides, then this debate couldn't have gone on for 200 years.
The British Museum would certainly be a poorer place without the Marbles,
take them away and, in a sense, you rip the heart out of the museum, and that would be a great loss.
But on the other side, there's no denying the strength of the Greek claim
that the Marbles would be best seen reunited in Athens,
and I think that argument's gonna seem all the stronger when the new museum's been built,
and you'll be able to see the gaps in the jigsaw puzzle of the Marbles.
I don't think Lord Elgin can have ever imagined that his actions would lead to such a huge controversy,
and whatever happens, I get the feeling this one is not going to be sorted out in a hurry.
Subtitles by Dermot Fitzsimons and Mary Easton BBC Broadcast 2004
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Drama-documentary in which art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon tells the story of the greatest cultural controversy of the last 200 years. He explores the history of the Elgin Marbles, tells the dramatic story of their removal from Athens and cites the arguments for and against their return to Greece.