BOSTON – On October 7, the first North American debate on the controversies surrounding the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles took place at the Athenaeum of Boston.
Those controversies concern the 19th century acquisition by the British Museum of the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, which the Greek government and the Greek diaspora are demanding to be returned to Athens for their placement in the New Acropolis Museum. In 1801, Thomas Bruce, better known as Lord Elgin, removed half the Parthenon’s carvings and statuary and brought them home to England, where they have stayed ever since. More than two hundred years later, the dispute around his actions remains one of the world’s great controversies in the field of Western heritage and culture.
Today the United Kingdom still backs up Elgin’s claim to the Marbles. “The UK government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But some of his countrymen disagree. In an open letter, comedian and actor Stephen Fry beseeched England to return the Marbles, arguing that “If Britain could give back India, then surely the emptying of one room in the British Museum is a small price to pay to right a historic wrong.”
Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis led the panel representing the Greek perspective, opposite respected Boston attorney and President of the Churchillians of New England Joseph Hern, whose panel represented the British point of view.
After the debate, both participants and audience members expressed their pleasure at the evening’s success. “The forum offered an excellent opportunity to consider what this decades-long controversy looks like today, when public discussions about museum ethics, restitution, and colonial collections are in the news almost daily,” said Elizabeth Marlowe, Professor of Art History at Colgate University, and one of the expert panelists for the English perspective.
Attendees at the forum shared Marlowe’s enthusiasm. “The debate on the Elgin – or Parthenon – Marbles was fascinating and insightful,” said audience member Stephen Kane. “All debaters, from Governor Dukakis’ opening speech advocating for the return of the Marbles to Greece to the closing speech defending the British Museum’s protection and display of the Marbles, were thought-provoking. In today’s political and social environment, it was great to see that two sides can vehemently disagree without being at all disagreeable. The advocates’ arguments pitted legal rights vs. the moral ‘right thing to do.’ All in all, a must-see event.”