Lord Elgin - Saviour or Vandal?

By Mary Beard Last updated 2011-02-17


Much of the sculpture that once enhanced the Parthenon in Athens was brought to London by Lord Elgin 200 years ago. Was this the act of a saviour or a vandal? Mary Beard looks at both sides of a fierce argument.



The argument need not be fierce Mary and if we all start from the premise that we respect culture, we would understand the need to reunite a fragmented, peerless work of art - the Parthenon sculptures (Marbles). After 200 years still divided, mainly, between the British Museum in London and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Meanwhile in London, the Elgin Marbles started a new chapter of their history -- as museum objects. Acquiring the sculptures had bankrupted Elgin, and he was keen to sell them to the government.

Keen to sell them because he had to do so. He sold them for less than what he had paid to ship them to England! 

Mary Beard and others may agree that the Parthenon Marbles tell a 'different story' in the Brirtish Museum, that they have a new narrative. The BCRPM argues that this is not the case.

Eddie O’Hara, Chaierman for the BCRPM believes the British Museum overstates its case when it says that after two centuries in its collection the Marbles no longer play a part in any Greek narrative.

 He comments: “They should not put narratives in competition with each other but if they do surely the most important story to be told by and on behalf of the Marbles is that they form an integral unity with those in Athens, and together they form an integral unity with one of the most important historical monuments in the world.”

 Eddie O’Hara concurs with Eleni Cubitt, Founder of the British Committee as he would welcome a credible response to the argument for the return of the Marbles on the grounds of human rights. The Faro Convention proposes that for a cultural community to be deprived of enjoyment of its cultural heritage is a violation of its human rights.

 “The Greeks are a cultural community as defined by the convention and the Marbles are part of the cultural heritage with which they identify.   Where there is a dispute good practice as defined by the convention includes measures to look at cooperation and reconciliation of these differences” concludes Eddie O’Hara.

 Eddie O’Hara studied Literae Humaniores at Magdalen College, Oxford and has been General Rapporteur for the Cultural Heritage and Museums Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.