Britain, Greece Quarrel Over Ancient Relics The Parthenon is a national symbol in Greece, but many of the marble sculptures that adorned the temple are in London. The British Museum houses the ancient relics, famously called the Elgin Marbles, claiming it's better equipped to care for them. But now, the Greek government has built a state of the art museum — at a price tag of $200 million — and it wants those sculptures back.
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Britain, Greece Quarrel Over Ancient Relics

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Britain, Greece Quarrel Over Ancient Relics

Britain, Greece Quarrel Over Ancient Relics

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Some consider it the greatest cultural theft in history. From 1801 to 1812, Thomas Bruce, better known as the 7th Earl of Elgin, excavated dozens of the most important Greek marble sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens and took them to Britain.

In 1816, the so-called Elgin Marbles were put on display in London at the British Museum, and just about ever since then, Greece has been demanding their return.

Well, now, the Greek government has opened a $200 million museum under the Acropolis to house its antiquities, and it wants those Elgin Marbles back.

So we called Ian Jenkins, senior curator at the British Museum, the man known as the keeper of the marbles.

Ian Jenkins, for those who are not familiar with the marbles, can you describe the collection? What's in it?

Mr. IAN JENKINS (Senior Curator, British Museum): Well, the sculpture, as you know, comes from the Parthenon, and the Parthenon had an unusually large number of sculptures on the outside of the building. There are sculptures carved all the way around that filled the gable ends of each end of the building.

RAZ: Would you call what Lord Elgin did theft?

Mr. JENKINS: On the contrary, Elgin was acting entirely within the permission of the legal government of the day, which was the Ottoman Turks.

RAZ: The Turks, we should mention, had occupied what is now modern-day Greece.

Mr. JENKINS: Yes, well, and far from being a robber, we regard him as being a conservator, and I like to say no Elgin, no marbles in the physical sense in that if he hadn't acted as he did, the sculptures wouldn't survive as they do.

RAZ: So in other words, had they remained in Greece, they wouldn't be what they are today.

Mr. JENKINS: That's undoubtedly true. I mean, one just has to compare cast of the west frieze of the building taken by Lord Elgin in 1802 with the frieze itself, removed in 1993, and there are great gaps and sort of heads missing and substantial losses between then and now.

RAZ: Okay, but now, we're talking about the 21st century. The Greeks have created this $200 million museum at the base of the Acropolis, climate-controlled. They have world-renowned curators. Why not return them now?

Mr. JENKINS: I think the argument for reunification, as it's called, is often predicated on the assumption that if you were to take the two halves, that in the British Museum and that in the Acropolis Museum from the Parthenon, and put them together, you would make some sort of a whole.

Well, actually, you would make about half. In Athens, they will be a part of a story that is about the history of Greek sculpture at the Acropolis and Athens. In London, they tell a story about the place of Greek classical sculpture in world cultures, in ancient civilization at large.

RAZ: I want to play you a bit of an NPR interview with writer Christopher Hitchens from a few days ago, and he, of course, makes the case for why the marbles need to be returned to Athens.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author): The Greeks still speak a version of what you can read in the inscriptions in Athens. There's a continuity to the claim there, and that temple is still their national symbol.

RAZ: I mean, you're saying that they have co-opted this as their national symbol, but, I mean, it seems like it's a fairly reasonable thing to make as a national symbol.

Mr. JENKINS: Well, and if reunification were truly what were intended, there would be a case for putting the sculptures back on the building.

RAZ: So you're arguing the Greeks don't want to reunify these - this piece.

Mr. JENKINS: I'm saying that reunification is a misleading term, much misunderstood by people who believe that what we're going to be achieving is some sort of whole.

RAZ: Okay, clearly it seems as if these sculptures are not going to return to Greece anytime soon, but what about lending some of these statues to the new Acropolis Museum. Museums do this all the time.

Mr. JENKINS: If there were such a request, it could only move forward on the basis that the British Museum's legal entitlement to the sculptures were recognized, and unfortunately, it's been made clear they do not regard the entitlement as valid. So there isn't even ground on which to proceed.

RAZ: Ian Jenkins is the senior curator at the British Museum and the man who looks after the Elgin Marbles. Ian Jenkins, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. JENKINS: You're most welcome.

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