The Integrity of the Monument and the
Advantages of Re-uniting the London and Athens Marbles
1. This argument is less often used than
it might be because all parties have come to think of the Parthenon
Marbles as detached works of art, whose possession is at issuein
the same way as if they were statues. In fact, every one of the
sculptures was, to a greater or lesser degree, built into the
monument. In the majority of casesthose of the 92 metopes
and 11 slabs of friezethe Marbles played a measurable part
in actually holding up the ceilings and roof of the Parthenon.
Only 37 pedimental figures in some degree resembled free-standing
sculpture, and even they were firmly attached to the building.
1.1 Furthermore, this building, as any visitor
to Athens can witness, is even today in a fair state of preservation.
Until the explosion in the Turco-Venetian war of 1687, the Parthenon
was, as well as being the finest, also the best preserved of all
Greek temples. After this and other episodes of destruction, some
160 years of tireless and fairly continuous work by the Greek
authorities, beginning in the 1830's, have achieved a substantial
restoration of the beauty that the architecture of the Parthenon
once possessed and that, even without most of its sculptural decoration,
it again displays to a high degree.
1.2. Greek architecture has had a role fully
comparable with that of Greek sculpture in the depth of its influence
on modern design. Indeed, in as much as public architecture is
automatically visible and, at least externally, accessible to
the population as a whole, this influence could be regarded as
the greater of the two: beginning from a later date, and undergoing
many transformations, it is detectable to this day in a sense
that is hardly any longer true of sculpture.
2. Lord Elgin's attitude to the architecture
was, even by the lights of his time, exceptionally vandalistic.
Half a century before him, his British predessors, Stuart and
Revett, had seen Greek architecture as something to be minutely
studied and lovingly cherished. Yet Elgin was prepared to sacrifice
architectural components, with no apparent hesitation, to sculptural
ones. The detachment of the frieze-blocks and, especially of the
metopes, was impossible without at least the temporary removal
of the cornices and other architectural members, in many cases
elaborately carved, which overlay them. Elgin's agents, from late
in 1801, resorted to the widespread use of saws (with which Elgin
himself had supplied them), mainly it seems to reduce the weight
of the sculptured blocks, but also to ease the access to them.
By good fortune, drawings of the south-east corner of the building
survive from 1801 and from 1810: these express, better than any
words, the magnitude of the damage done to this part of the Parthenon
in Elgin's time, mainly in the cause of acquiring the last seven
metopes on the south side.
2.1 Two of the implications of this destruction
may be singled out for mention here. First, as is well known,
even Lord Elgin was not able to carry through the removal of the
sculptures in their entirety. Forty of the metopes on the northern,
eastern, and western sides (those most exposed to the wind) were
already so weathered by his time that they were not thought worth
the trouble of removing. Much more notably, the frieze at the
relatively well-preserved western end was too difficult of access
to be removed with the means at his disposal. The removal of the
architectural setting of these pieces, while they remained on
the building, greatly increased their exposure to the elements
over the next two centuriesa fact entirely ignored in the
familiar retaliatory arguments, used by the British Museum and
its allies, to decry the fate of the sculptures in Greek hands.
2.2 The second implication has a wider significance,
and can best be expressed in the form of a rhetorical question:
what other possessions, of the British Museum or any other major
collection, were torn from a living building which, after more
than 24 centuries, is still partially standing today? The answer
is, of course, very few. Their number falls even lower when one
introduces the factor of the place of that building in the consciousness
of the modern nation state. This surely offers the key to a solution
of the problem that, perhaps more than any other, exercises governmental
and museum authorities: what may be called the fear of "opening
the floodgates". No decision about the Parthenon Marbles
need have implications for more than a tiny range of museum acquisitions
which have the same history of having been "bought"
at the price of architectural destruction.
3. No-one now proposes that the sculptures
can be restored to their place on the building, as the Greeks
illustrated by their recent removal of the West Frieze to the
Acropolis Museum for better preservation. In the ethical issue
of the treatment of architecture, no direct restitution is now
possible except in the minimal case of the few architectural pieces
that Elgin also abstracted: but this issue has an immediate bearing,
seldom acknowledged, on the parallel ethical case of the sculptures.
3.1 Athens and London, between them, now
possess more than 98 per cent of what survives of the Parthenon
Sculptures, in two roughly equal halves. It is true that other
European countries are marginally involved in the ownership of
those components of the building that are outside Greece: but
among these pieces, the British Museum possesses 55 of the 56
frieze slabs, all 20 of the pediment figures, and 15 of the 16
metopes; again, nearly 98 per cent in total.
3.2 To re-unite the London and Athens marbles
could thus achieve a multiple effect. First, it is the study of
its original conception that has always been the main scholarly
approach, for art historians and archaeologists alike. For this
approach, factors such as the differential preservation of the
sculptures are an irrelevance, and their differing locations a
major obstacle. If the aim is to investigate the meaning attached
to the original design as a whole, it would be a huge gain to
have virtually all the surviving material in one location. Secondly,
there is the unity of architecture and sculpture which we have
been stressing. To have the Marbles located in sight of the building
to which they belong would be to give them back that which they
have lacked for the past two centuries: a sense of their true
purpose, which the ordinary viewer could instantly appreciate,
instead of having to fall back on the two-dimensional reconstructions
of scholars. The issue is a bigger one than that of scholarship,
and at the same time more lasting than that of politics: it is
one that lies at the heart of culture itself.
A M Snodgrass, Cambridge