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Former British Museum Trustee Calls for Return of Parthenon Marbles

The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum
Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. Credit: Carole Raddato / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Noted British sculptor and former Trustee of the British Museum Sir Antony Gormley came out for the return of the Parthenon Marbles on Wednesday, saying “I would be happy to return them.”

In an interview with the magazine British Archaeology, the sculptor urged the British Museum to “take Africa out of the basement” and to stop what he called its “obsession with the classical world.”

Marbles chipped off the facade of the Parthenon and spirited away

Opining that the Museum “misrepresented” some areas of the world while under representing others. In addition, he said, Africa should be the core of the Museum’s holdings.

The Marbles, which were chipped away from the facade of the Parthenon during the time of Ottoman occupation of Greece, were spirited away from the country in the early 1800’s by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin. After the “Mentor,” the ship taking them to England, was wrecked on the coast of Greece, they were painstakingly brought to the surface by sponge divers — and sent on their way once again.

They are now in a dimly-lit area of the Museum, with gray concrete walls as their backdrop.

Parthenon Marbles
Sir Antony Gormley, a noted sculptor and former Trustee of the British Museum. Credit: Facebook/Antony Gormley

“Not a particularly inspiring place”

Speaking to interviewers about the sculptures, which the Museum continues to maintain were acquired legitimately, Sir Antony said “I would be happy to return (them) because I think the present galleries are not a particularly inspiring place.”

The eminent sculptor, whose works showing the human form are on display at Gateshead in the UK, in the Alps and in other scenic locations, was especially scathing about the Museum’s display of African artifacts, which are housed in the basement of the building. He called this “an instance of post-colonial iniquity.”

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, has already taken notice of the growing movement to address colonialism, saying that he planned to make its displays from non-European cultures more visible in the future.

Major refurbishments of British Museum displays

A museum spokesman acknowledged that “The British Museum is currently undertaking a masterplan project to deliver major refurbishments to infrastructure, and redisplay and reinterpret the entire collection across all of its sites.”

The Parthenon Marbles, for which the 7th Lord of Elgin paid the Ottoman authorities 70,000 pounds, are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, reliefs and architectural members which were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants.

Lord Elgin served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the years 1799 to 1803.

The Earl claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities to take away parts of the Parthenon, and to this day the British Museum holds that it has the legal right to display the pieces, even though they were taken from an occupied country.

Most controversial art objects in modern history

Men who were employed by Elgin chipped the sculptures away from the pediments of the Parthenon itself and then grabbed architectural members from both the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. Shipped out of Greece in 1812, the sculptures were eventually bought by the British government in 1816.

The orphaned pieces, currently on display in a windowless area of the British Museum in London, have become some of the most fought-over historical objects in modern history.

The original document which Elgin said was a permit for the sculptures’ removal has been lost, with many experts saying that, even if it had existed at one time, it was not legally valid.

Others have said that since the Ottomans had held the Athens area since the year 1460, such documents are valid because of the right of conquest.

BBC historian David Olusoga chimed in on the ongoing dispute over how the museum displays its holdings and the legality of what they own by suggesting that the Museum should hold a “Supermarket Sweep,” in which all countries have two minutes to take back their artifacts.

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