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Olympic Controversy: Britain and Greece Spar Over Marbles - 2004-06-22

As the summer Olympics in Athens approach, the ongoing campaign by the Greek government for the return of some ancient sculptures held by the British Museum is back in the spotlight. The disagreement over the sculptures is one of many such disputes around the world.

Visitors to the British Museum discuss the controversy, just outside the hall where the sculptures are displayed.

"I think it's wonderful to be able to see them here. I think a lot of people get to see them here," says a woman . "If I were Greek, I would be very unhappy about the fact that I had to go to London to see them."

"Well, I don't think they should have them back because if we hadn't taken them away they would probably have been destroyed by now anyway," says another visitor.

Those and other visitors to the British Museum have the chance to admire the sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles. They were taken from the Parthenon Temple in Athens 200 years ago by a British diplomat, Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin.

The British Museum has about half of the original decorative band of sculptures that encircled the Parthenon. Greece has most of the rest, with a few pieces in various museums around the world.

Greece wants to re-unite the collection and display it in a new museum being built near the ruins of the Parthenon. The Greek government was hoping it would have the marbles back in time for the Olympics, but that seems unlikely now, with the games just two months away.

A London-based group called Marbles Reunited came up with a proposal for the British Museum to loan the sculptures to Greece on a long-term basis.

But the spokeswoman for the British Museum, Joanna Mackle, says the proposal is not what it seems.

"When the word 'loan' is used, it's not the word 'loan' in the that way you or I or anybody might understand," she said. "A loan implies that you lend something and it returns. But what we're actually being asked for through the media and through politics is for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures forever, never to be returned to London. That's not a basis for any form of discussion."

The spokesman for the Greek Embassy in London, Nicos Papadakis, says all of the marbles should be together, where they originated. He says the new museum in Athens would display them in a gallery overlooking the Parthenon ruins.

"Where should it best be seen? Where can it better be appreciated? Then, I have no doubt in my mind that the best place for them to be seen and appreciated is Athens," he said. "I think that the marbles cannot really be appreciated properly in a rather gloomy sort of big room in London with this kind of light. The sculptures were not sculpted for that sort of environment. Therefore, the marbles should be returned for that reason alone, because I believe that either the tourist, or the student, or the scholar can more clearly and precisely appreciate them in the right context. And this is our argument."

At the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles are hung along the walls of a long, rectangular room with a high ceiling, and lighting designed to seem like the outdoors. The sculptures stand out from the wall, depicting scenes from Greek mythology.

The Museum spokeswoman, Ms. Mackle, says the display in London provides a perspective that Athens cannot provide. "In London, in the context of the British Museum, a world museum, they tell the story in the context of Egypt, and the Near East, and Europe. So they give a much wider, if you like, story," she said. "So we feel that the division between London and Greece is probably a reasonably happy accident of history."

The dispute over the Elgin Marbles is one of many art restitution cases around the world. For example, the Egyptian government wants the British Museum to return the 2,000-year-old Rosetta Stone and the museum's collection of Egyptian mummies.

The Glasgow Museum in Scotland housed a Native American heirloom, called the Ghost Dance Shirt, for more than a century. After years of negotiations, the museum returned the sacred shirt to the Lakota Sioux tribe of South Dakota in 1998.

At University College in London, Professor Emeritus Norman Palmer studies the law of art and cultural property. He says art restitution cases can encourage museums to think about their collections objectively, and to consider who the rightful owners are.

"Whatever the reasons, there has certainly been an increased, I think, consciousness in this country and in other countries," he said. Museums are beginning in some cases to return things. We've had a few cases of return to the United States, for example. And I think it is good that these questions are being opened and that policy is being candidly and transparently defined."

Professor Palmer says art repatriation cases are difficult to resolve because it is necessary to look far back in time to determine whether the antiquities were obtained legally.

In the case of the Elgin Marbles, the British Museum says Lord Elgin got permission to remove them. The Greek government says he had no permission, and he carelessly hacked them off of the Parthenon.

The future is as unclear as the past for the Elgin Marbles, as the debate continues among governments, museums and activist groups, and among visitors at the British Museum.

For now, the five million people who visit the British Museum every year will continue to have the chance to contemplate both the sculptures and the controversy that surrounds them.