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Greece Demands Return of Parthenon Sculptures - 2004-08-30

While Greece celebrates the successful return of the Olympic Games to their land of origin, there is one more homecoming it would like to see: that of the 2,500-year-old sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon, Athens' most famous landmark, early in the 19th century. But, the sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, are likely to remain in the British Museum in London.

The demand for the return of the marbles, which took up about 60 percent of the west frieze of the Parthenon, goes back to the founding of the Greek state in 1832.

The elaborate sets of sculptures were pried off the Parthenon two-centuries ago under the supervision of Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who at the time was Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greece. Lord Elgin claimed he had Turkish permission to remove the sculptures, but Greece has always maintained that he obtained them through bribery.

Lord Elgin later sold the marbles to the British Museum. The museum argues that their removal to London spared the sculptures from the devastation - due to war and atmospheric pollution - that befell other treasures of the Parthenon, and saved them for posterity.

Before this year's Olympics, Greece called on Britain to use the occasion of the Games to promise to return the Elgin Marbles. Elena Korka, the Greek Culture Ministry official in charge of the project, says the marbles should be reunited with other surviving Parthenon sculptures in Athens, so that people can understand the context in which they were created.

"So, it is a matter of context, and the best possible exhibition of the Parthenon sculptures in their historical environment right next to the monument they are an integral part of," she said. "They were not, you know, freestanding statues. They were engulfed in the structure of this building, and they meant things. They were part of a meaning. So, there is no way you can really understand the Parthenon, without the sculptures or vice-versa. And we need for the whole world to reunite what exists."

Greece's campaign to get the marbles back is supported by UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - and has also gathered support in Britain. But the British Museum says it does not make sense to return them to Greece, because more people can see them in their present setting.

British Museum spokeswoman Joanna Mackle says her institution provides a unique setting for the sculptures as an important chapter in the story of human achievement.

"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," she said. "So, they give a much wider, if you like, story. So, we feel the division between London and Greece is probably a reasonably happy accident of history."

Like other great institutions of learning, the British Museum worries that returning the marbles to Greece might set a precedent. European and American archaeologists, collectors and scholars have played a key role in finding, studying and preserving Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman and pre-Columbian treasures. If all were returned to their countries of origin, scholars argue, Western museums would be emptied.

In contrast to the demands Greece made during the 1980s under actress-turned-Culture-Minister Melina Mercouri for the outright restitution of the sculptures, Athens is now taking a softer approach. It is proposing a long-term loan of the marbles in time for the inauguration of a new museum to be built near the Parthenon. The museum, whose construction has been held up by the discovery of ancient artifacts at the site, will have a climate-controlled environment, and is expected to be ready in two years.

But British Museum spokeswoman Joanna Mackle says the Greeks have never made any formal proposal for such a loan. And in any case, she says, a long-term loan is only a euphemism for a hand-over.

"When the word 'loan' is used, it is not like the word 'loan' in the way you or I or anybody else might understand," she said. "A loan implies that you lend something and it returns. But what we are actually being asked for, through the media and through politics, is for the permanent removal of all the sculptures forever."

Greek Culture Ministry official Elena Korka says she understands British sensitivities.

"I think that we do not need to rush things," she said. "We understand they need time. We need to discuss things. They need to understand how we can work together."

Ms. Korka proposes a joint exhibition of the Elgin Marbles, once the new Athens museum is completed. She also says Greece could lend other artworks to Britain in exchange.

But the British Museum is not about to part with the marbles. And just as clearly, the Greek campaign to recover them is not about to end. As Ms. Korka says, there has to be a solution, because the matter will not go away.