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KAI RYSSDAL: Athens, Greece, is set for a major cultural happening this weekend. A brand new museum is going to be opening at the foot of the Acropolis tomorrow. At the top of that hill you can find a number of historical monuments, including the Parthenon Temple. What you can’t find there though is something the Greeks would very much like to have in their new museum — the other half of a set of marble sculptures from the Parthenon.
The sculptures — the reason the new museum was built — are now sitting in the British Museum in London, which is where Christopher Werth begins our story on the continuing controversy over what are called the “Elgin Marbles.”
Christopher Werth: The British Museum draws an average 6 million visitors every year. They marvel at Egyptian mummies, giant statues of the pharaohs and from the Greek empire, the marble sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin cut from the Parthenon 200 years ago.
Here’s curator Ian Jenkins.
Ian Jenkins: The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 B.C. at a time when Athens was the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean and the head of an empire.
By the early 19th century, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire centered in Istanbul. Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Turkey, got permission to cut down the sculptures.
He wanted them to spruce up his family seat in Scotland. But he went bankrupt with the costs of shipping and sold the lot to the British government. Greece has been trying to get them back ever since. But the British Museum says “no.”
Christopher Price is a former member of Britain’s Parliament who wants the “Elgin Marbles” returned.
Christopher Price: The argument changes every 10 years or so. First, they were, “It’s impossible to move, too heavy to move,” that sort of thing. Then, “The Greeks couldn’t look after them, they couldn’t look after anything.” And then, this project for a new museum next to the Acropolis took shape, and now it’s complete.
The new air-conditioned museum at the Acropolis recreates what the Parthenon looked like as a whole. It uses what was left behind in Athens and fills in the missing parts with plaster casts of the sculptures in London.
Price: The differentiation shouts at you, it really hurls at you. And everybody from the world will on leaving the museum say, “Where are the rest of them?” and they’ll say, “Well, they’re in the British Museum.”
Price says that should put pressure on the British Museum. But Hannah Boulton, a museum spokesperson, says she doesn’t envision them ever leaving.
Hannah Boulton: We feel very strongly that actually there’s a huge advantage to having the sculptures in two different places, because here in London they can tell this worldwide story. In Athens, they can tell a different but complimentary and important story about ancient Athens and its place in Ancient Greece.
Spryos Diamantis, a spokesman for the Greek government, isn’t convinced. He says it took just one visit to the British Museum to make up his mind.
Spyros Diamantis: It was a cloudy day. It was miserable to tell you the truth. These sculptures were created for the light of Athens, and that’s why this is the best way to show them, under that light.
The new Athens museum expects 2.5 million visitors this year. Diamantis says that number could double if the sculptures were returned. And bring in welcome tourist dollars, at a time when Greece is hurting economically.
But directors of the British Museum fear a return could set a precedent. If these sculptures go back to Greece, when would the Egyptians or denizens of other ancient empires come knocking on the door?
In London, this is Christopher Werth for Marketplace.
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