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Who Owns the Elgin Marbles?
A visitor to the new Acropolis museum stands behind the Caryatids, female figures used instead of pillars, in Athens on Sunday, June 21, 2009. The empty space in front of the visitor denotes the absence of a Caryatid now on display at the British Museum in London. The Acropolis Museum opened its gates today to the first visitors who came to see the more than 4,000 exhibits on display, including those parts of Parthenon's marble frieze not held by the British Museum. (AP)

A visitor to the new Acropolis museum stands behind the Caryatids in Athens on Sunday, June 21, 2009. The empty space in front of the visitor denotes the absence of a Caryatid now on display at the British Museum in London. (AP)

Giant questions of antiquity, propriety and cultural heritage — beginning with the Acropolis, where else?

In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, under Ottoman eyes, removed sculptures from the Parthenon — half of the frieze on the Parthenon itself, and a lot of sculptures. Many see the “Elgin Marbles” — ensconced in the British Museum — as a great cultural heist, 200 years old. Now Athens has a stunning new Acropolis Museum, and very much wants the Elgin Marbles back.

This hour, On Point: The Elgin Marbles — London or Athens?

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Joining us from Athens, Greece, is John Psaropoulos, editor and columnist for Athens News, Greece’s oldest English-language newspaper, and Athens correspondent for National Public Radio.

Also joining us from Athens is John Brady Kiesling, a former American diplomat and trained classical archeologist. He studied at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and who has worked on archeological digs in Greece, Turkey, Armenia, and Spain. He lives in the Plaka neighborhood just at the foot of the Acropolis and joins us from his home there.

Joining us from the British Museum in London is Konstantinos Politis. A classical archeologist, he is in charge of the dig and the museum at the site of Lot’s Cave in Ghor Safi.

And from Cambridge, England, we’re joined by Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University’s Newnham College and author of “Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found.”

More links:

The website of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens offers photos and information about the Acropolis monuments and the musuem’s galleries.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, critic Christoper Hitchens argued for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.  In yetserday’s Times, Michael Kimmelman explored how the opening of the museum has renewed the debate.

The BBC World Service offers a collection of photos of the new museum in Athens:


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  • map

    why do you not have any greeks on this radio program? while mr. politis is greek, he is clearly representing the british museum — you really should have at least one actual greek archaeologist…

  • http://freerefillsamerica.com Nowooski

    Modern Greeks claiming entitlement to the Elgin Marbles is like me, as an American citizen, claiming the rights to pre-historic Native American art.

    Just because you live near something of human cultural value does not give you ownership rights of it.

    Keep the Elgin Marbles in Britain.

  • Barbara Simonetti

    There is a plaster copy of the Elgin Marbles in the atrium of Brookline High School. It was brought to Brookline by William H. Lincoln in 1886 after being assembled in Britain. For over a hundred years, the copies were housed in the old Lincoln School, which was named for the purveyor of the art. In the 1990′s officials partnered with some local groups and residents to restore a 19th century artwork and to install it in the newly built atrium at the high school.

  • http://www.texnology.com Amy Hendrickson

    A Solution:

    Let the British make good copies of the Elgin Marbles
    and give the originals back to Greece. There is fine
    technology for making copies of sculpture these days,
    even artificial marble.

    By the British showing these copies, people visiting
    the British Museum could still see the art, while
    appreciating the enlightened moral policy that the
    British had shown, by giving back the art to the
    country that produced it.

    While the Greeks would be able to show the originals,
    as they should.


    Please consider this suggestion!

  • kc

    Your show is a bit of a PC hatchet job that does a disservice to a very complicated subject. You shouldn’t have done the show if you couldn’t find an expert that could strongly argue the position of leaving the marbles where they are, and answer the easy but flawed comparisons between this and the the Nazis. You’ve accepted without question the Greek position of victim, without examining how Greek governments for a generation have used this controversy to foment an easy and unattractive type of nationalism. You should be exploring the troubling precedent such a move would set for museum of the world, and provincial outcome that would occur if all museum argued such a philosophy. Maybe the MFA should be filled only with objects from the US, Massachusetts, Boston?

  • lm

    It would have been helpful to actually have a Greek representative talking about this. Surely, they would have agreed.

  • Cspray

    I agree with the solution Amy came up with. Frankly, it’s the British Museum’s best choice rather than lose the art altogether.

    I feel there was nothing ‘legal’ about the purchase of the Elgin marbles. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something, but as I understand it the Earl took a lot of liberties: First taking them down, then shaving them down, then abducting them, and finally selling them to pay off his debts like they were his property. Just because the British Museum bought them doesn’t mean they have the right to keep them. They are ‘hot’ items not put up for sale by the original owner.

    I think that if the Greeks have the technology and the facilities to store these works of art, they have every right to ask for them to return home without question.

    Kc is correct as well, this will set a precedent for other museums but I’m not sure I find it troubling. I think that if original ‘owners’ of historical property have the means to preserve these treasures, they should be allowed to. I think it’s the museums that have set the troubling pattern of abducting pieces of history and relocating them far from their places of origin without permission. (This is of course not including those items that are lent to a museum ‘far away’ for keeping.) I understand loaning this kind of property for safekeeping and sharing bits of history, but keeping it from the original owners who have the means to store and display is nothing short of unprofessional.

  • Jordan Smith

    I am an American with a lot of British ancestors, I have taken a trip to England and seen the marbles in London, and yes, that was amazing. But I want England, (and America of course), to move beyond the era of imperialism and make a positive gesture by giving this back. We would not feel right about major works from Stonehenge or Sutton Hoo being in Athens.

  • wavre


    This is ridiculous and long overdue!

  • Alexandra

    I heard earlier in the show that from the British standpoint, the Elgin marbles belonged to the people of great Britain, and were on permanent loan to the British museum. Having said that, shouldn’t the British people decide what the fate of the Marbles should be.

  • bert

    Greek nationalism is offputting, and reminds you that it’s a part of the Balkans. Large explosions caused extensive damage to the acropolis in the 17th and again in the 19th centuries – the result of a decision to use the site as an ammunition dump.

    By the way, typing in all capitals is the equivalent of shouting.
    Not cool.

  • George

    1st of all- to bert… the explosion caused to the parthenon was when the TURKS were using it as an ammo dump… u make it sound as if greek people were responsible for turning the parthenon into a ticking time bomb for the explosions… writing something in completely the wrong light to make the greek position seem wrong is offputting and not cool…

    to show you how passionate greeks are about their heritage- during their war for independence, when the greeks were beating the turks in athens and the turks resorted to destroying marble columns to create ammo, the greek resistance fighters gave the turkish fighters ammo to stop them from further destroying the ancient ruins…

    2nd- to those that argue it should stay b/c the museum would lose a major attraction sound like children… greece has offered other ancient works to compensate for uniting all the marbles… and who can HONESTLY say that seeing 50% of the remaining frieze on walls in the BM is better than being able to see the ENTIRE remaining work LITERALLY underneath the parthenon while looking up and seeing the actual building through the glass… the experience obtained cannot be beat under any circumstance… so the argument that its better to be enjoyed as 2 separate entities is ludicrous at best and insane at worst…

  • Raul

    The British are thief and pirate they should return the Malvinas too.

  • Raul

    Also you should be taking about Michael Jackson instead of the brit that sting.
    When Tom will be back.

  • bert

    Well said, Raul.
    A man with priorities.
    The comparison with the self-interested nationalist rabble-rousing of the Argentinian junta is also apt.

  • tortiecat

    First question: where is Tom Ashbrook? This day (along with the Planet Money live show following this one) was going to be a big one for him.

    Tom, if you are sick or experiencing personal dilemmas, all good wishes to you, and fingers crossed for a speedy return to the show. I miss you!

    About this show, which I listened to carefully, since I teach classical art, and work as a curator of marble monuments:

    I also would have liked to hear more Greek voices on this (and maybe one authorized to represent the British Museum), but clearly, as stated on the show, popular opinion in both Britain and Greece (and elsewhere) is that the originals should go back to their place of origin. Like another listener I thought making replicas–exhibiting replicas of great works was standard practice in America’s first public art museums, as elsewhere–and giving the originals back to Greece is the best solution for all concerned. This situation needs compromise.

    I also agree with another listener that while the original right to obtain the items was obtained through bribery or other questionable means–something that apparently was standard practice, so we consider that a non-issue–the way the items were then treated is so reprehensible that I am surprised the British Museum still maintains they acquired the works legally. The Museum just can’t have that much legal leverage, can it?

    And let’s face it, nearly 200 years on is a good time to reconsider collections acquisitions made in a different political, artistic, cultural, technological, and military world……

    I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. They are incredibly fascinating and gorgeous, but the display is stale. I’m looking forward to going to the new Acropolis Museum, which sounds absolutely splendid! Hopefully the Parthenon Marbles (aka the Elgin Marbles) will join the collections there someday.

  • John Reilly

    The one-sidedness of this show was breathtaking. Also the posters bringing Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands into the discussion betray their own prejudices.

  • PinkMuslimah

    Yet another face of imperialism demands the “right” to keep ancient artifacts that were never theirs in the first place.

  • Nichol

    If the UK gives ‘back’ these statues, then Amsterdam deserves to get ‘back’ all Rembrandts, Vermeer’s will have to go to Haarlem. I’m more worried about some ancient egyptian stuff standing outside in the UK, France, Italy: the originals should at least go into a museum. They can have copies outside. What about all those greek statues in Rome, stolen by the Romans?

    This gets ridiculous, if you think about it. Maybe one could still complain to Russia keeping art stolen from the naxi’s, who stole it in the rest of Europe. That is not so long ago. Some of the original owners might even be alive.

    However: it would be nice to have proper copies made of all statues, and if possible they can be put up in their original positions: on the Parthenon itself. Nothing wrong with copies. When you think of it: why not have more copies? Many ancient statues are anyway copies of more ancient originals.

    The British museum is a fantastic advertisement for the greek tourism industry. Let those originals just stay where they are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/argendino Dino Mavridis

    And just like an American citizen, you don’t seem to realise that you don’t come from pre-historic Native Americans, you come from European settlers who had nothing to do with them. So yes, *you* may live near something of human cultural value, but you don’t have ownership of it as such because it has nothing to do with *your* ancestors.

    However the Greeks do come from the Ancient Greeks, and the marbles belong to all Greek people (and the world, of course) who are descended from the Ancient Greeks who built them.

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