The Parthenon Marbles – or, Stirring the Proverbial on Twitter

Every now and again, when the planets align and the elements are in total harmony, something magical happens.

A throwaway tweet that has been thrown into the swirling maelstrom that is Twitter and forgotten by it’s author moments later gets viewed and retweeted until it is a raging titan in 140 characters. It takes on a life of its own, dragging tweeters into its cyclone and refusing to let them go for hours. It is the stuff of myth and legend.

Well, not quite, but it does sound rather deliciously dramatic.

One morning last week I wrote a quick tweet as a kneejerk reaction to a mention of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles. I can’t even remember how it came up, perhaps the radio? Or an inch of newspaper column? I didn’t think much about it, but nevertheless chucked my tiny opinion into the whirlwind of chatter that is Twitter. What I basically said was that it would be nice to see the marbles in Athens but that I was hesitant to see them sent back in case it set a precedent for a major global game of Musical Museum Exhibits. I didn’t actually say that last bit hoe I’ve written it here, hindsight does tend to make me marginally wittier. (I said marginally, trolls!)

I thought no more of it, put my iPod Touch down, and sat myself down to watch whatever MGM musical was showing on TCM.

Now I’ve had a tweet go viral (or as viral as you can get in our rather small twitterstorian community) before. A quick tweet about Ancient Greek sex positions offered by prostitutes complete with a droll hashtag saw my follower number triple in two days and was retweeted so many times I thought my iPod had broken. Sex sells, and whilst shocked (and delighted) I at least understood why it had happened. With this, I wasn’t so sure.

Within minutes I was being bombarded with tweets from a host of people. I knew that I wasn’t going to get many people sitting on the Elgin fence as indifference doesn’t tend to inspire a lot of replies, but the strength of conviction among the people who did bother to type out a reply was amazing.

I had unwittingly unleashed one of my industry’s most fervent debates upon myself.

A bit of background for those of you that don’t sit for hours contemplating the fate of a few lumps of rock:

Under the Golden Age of Pericles in Athens during the 5th Century BC, two architects named Iktinos and Kallikrates and a sculptor names Phidias were put in charge of rejuvenating the Athenian Acropolis that had been sadly razed during a Persian scuffle. Money from the Delian League, a group of Greek states allied with Athens against Persia, was siphoned off to pay for the scheme.

Soon, grandiose buildings were being constructed on the Acropolis, a grand gateway called the Propylaea and a temple called the Erechtheion which has columns shaped like beautiful women (called caryatids) as well as statues liberally sprinkled around the complex. As we all know, the shining star of the site was and is the Parthenon, a massive temple dedicated to the patron Goddess of the city, Athena.

This temple housed one of Phidias’ masterpieces (now lost) which was a massive chryselephantine statue of Athena (which means made out of ivory and gold.) The gold of her statue was fully removable and served as the Athenian Treasury.

It’s interesting to note that the scheme, much like The Eiffel Tower and London Eye, had it’s detractors as it was being built. Before these buildings become iconic there is always someone who wants to kick the architect in the shin. One Athenian grumbled that the beautification of the Acropolis was nothing less than bedecking it as if it were a brazen whore. The Parthenon, it seems, has created debate since before it’s completion.

Fastforward to a time where the Greeks aren’t on such a strong footing. Under Roman rule, Emperor Nero couldn’t resist slapping his name upon the Parthenon in massive metal letters.

1,000 years after Phidias and Greece was now officially Christian with their own orthodox church – The Parthenon. The statue of Athena having being carted off to disappear into the ether at Constantinople, the Parthenon was adapted for a bit of Jesus worshipping. Then, in 1456, it’s all change again as a minaret is plonked unceremoniously onto the temple and,et voila, we have ourselves a mosque. So already, the Parthenon has seen a lot of changes to its function and appearance. Frankly, given the pagan nature of the sculpture, it’s a miracle any of it was allowed to survive.

Not that we’re out of the woods quite yet. In 1687 the Venetians are trying to oust the Turkish from Athens. The Turks decide to hide in their gunpowder store which is situated inside the, you guessed it, Parthenon. 700+ Venetian cannonballs later and KABOOM! The magazine explodes leaving hardly any of the temple standing. (Much of what you see today has been reconstructed.) Frencesco Morosini, a Venetian General, didn’t leave Athens before trying to shove a few large choice bits of sculpture into his luggage, smashing Poseidon, Athena’s chariot and a few of the stone horses in the process.

By 1801 you could be forgiven for thinking that the Parthenon might have fared better elsewhere. The Ottomans were selling chunks of sculpture off to tourists. Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Constantinople was an antiquities fanatic and it bothered him to see the destruction of antiquities in Turkey and Greece. By the time he managed to take a tour of the Acropolis, sculptures were laying littered on the floor. Some had been ground down to dust to make cement, and quite a few pieces had mysteriously vanished. The Parthenon was no longer a beautiful wonder of architecture, she was a wreck.

Lord Elgin wasted no time in convincing the Ottoman Sultan that Elgin should cart them off to Blighty before they were lost forever. To be quite frank, had I a time machine I’d do exactly the same thing, although if we’re being pedantic I would have prevented the Christians moving in first and halted the whole sorry tale from there. Even so, once again at the time there were noisy critics who condemned Elgin as a looter.

It wasn’t easy or particularly well executed, but the fragments of sculpture that had survived being sawn off/shipwrecked had finally made it back to London. Where, on the verge of bankruptcy, Elgin sold them to the British Museum at a knock down price. It’s worth noting that Elgin hadn’t wanted to sell, he’d been planning to use the marbles to prettify his ancestral seat in Scotland. Had he not been so awful at managing his money the Parthenon marbles could be being used as a bench in a stately home’s garden right now.

Anyway, The Marbles ended up in the BM and Elgin’s name was to be permanently attached to them for ever after. Staff at the museum in the late 1800’s tried to get the marbles to gleam white by using various caustic acids and later in the pre-WWII years accusations were thrown about scrubbing the marbles with wire wool.

And so we arrive at the present day, where two sides are violently opposed as to whether the marbles should be returned to Athens or remain in London.

Throw in a tweet by someone decidedly on the fence and bitter arguments occur. Back to the tweet in question.

It was a mere thought, spoken in electronic form to no-one in particular. Within seconds, I was challenged by someone I had followed for a while but who as yet hadn’t heard of me.

I can therefore only assume that @Elginism searches for related keywords on an hourly basis to pounce on any unsuspecting tweeter who has an opinion that may slightly differ from theirs. (Don’t be fooled by the twitter handle, ‘Elginism’ doesn’t mean pro-Elgin, it’s slang for vandalism and desecration.)

I’d been following his tweets for a while as I like to keep a balanced view of things, not necessarily because I agree with what he says, and after his first volley he started following me back. To make it easier, I assume, to debate with me. Now, I like a good debate. But things soon escalated as twitter joined in en masse. I shall now paraphrase the conversation:

Me: Scared of setting a scary precedent yaddah yaddah

@Elginism: But lots of things have been returned eg Euphronios Krater, Morgantina Silver etc Each case must be judged on it’s own merits.

Elginism carries on to say that they’re not a fan of the inside-out display of the frieze in the BM.

A lady who tour guides in Rome replied to me also. @UnderstandRome countered that whilst she is a huge fan of the new Acropolis Museum, she’s seen where they’ve made a space to display the marbles and in her opinion, it’s easier to view them in the BM. (The Acropolis Museum wants to display them high up as they would have been viewed in situ. Not easy to get a good photo that way….)

In the meantime I’m replying to @Elginism that I’d worry that if one museum gave in to return demands, it’d start off a domino effect. The reply comes back that the prospect of a worldwide swapshop shouldn’t put people off doing ‘the right thing.’

So far so debated, but what IS the right thing? I have to admit to retweeting all of the replies I’m getting from both sides. I am refusing to take a side! I tweet that perhaps casts can be made as a compromise. It’s amusing to note that this was skimmed over.

After a few to and fros, @lobstersquad mentions that perhaps this shouldn’t BE a huge debate. It is only a tiny minority who actually give a flying toss about where the marbles are housed.

@Elginism isn’t letting the subject drop, my refusal to agree with them fully must be annoying them. All I’d said that was I could understand the BM’s reticence. Again, the reply comes that shouldn’t be an excuse to ‘live in the past.’

Hang on a second. Surely the idea of reuniting a couple of statues with their former building IS living in the past? Isn’t that PRECISELY what @Elginism wants? To restore how things were arranged IN THE PAST?

I counter that I consider it a mercy that Elgin got in there before more destruction was caused. One explosion shame on you, two explosions shame on me. That kind of thing. And then came the dreaded line:

“That’s not what Elgin thought at the time.” Here’s where we get on shaky ground. Trying to crowbar your belief system into the thoughts of someone long dead is, let’s face it, dodgy at best. I’m afraid I’m going to have to read correspondence or journals from Elgin before I join in on imagining what he thought about the whole thing. No matter, the discussion is carrying on without me. Seeing as I’m retweeting everything so that my followers can see the conversation, other people are joining in and going off on their own tangents whilst mentioning my handle so I can stay in the loop.

@rogueclassicist chimes in with the opinion that the marbles should not be considered as ‘belonging’ to Greece or Britain. They should belong to humanity. Therefore, keep them in the best place for society to view them.

Brilliant idea! Let’s look at some statistics. The Art Newspaper compiles an annual list of visitor figures for the 100 most visited museums of art in the world.

In 2011, the British Museum takes bronze with a staggering 5,848,534 visitors, beaten only by the Louvre and the Met. The Acropolis Museum, opened in summer 2009, limped into 38th place for the 2011 figures with a measly (by comparison) 1,244,702.

It can further be argued that the BM doesn’t charge an entrance fee like the Acropolis Museum does, and therefore is available to all. In these penny pinching times, that’s a huge consideration. When your budget is tight do you choose to pay rent or waltz around a museum?

London gets nearly twice the visitors that the whole of Greece receives annually. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Greece, I often joke that I must be a greek in a past life. But we have to admit that of the 19million odd visitors to Greece per year, most head straight for cheap 18-30 resorts for ouzo and sunbathing rather than a bit of culture. It’s something I tut about every time I’m there. Why go to Athens when you can stay in Faliraki for a quarter of the price and get hammered for a fortnight? At least with London we can genuinely say that culture is our main selling point, because the beaches are muddy river banks and we don’t serve cheap ouzo.

So by that argument, the marbles should stay here. More people are seeing them in London than they would in Greece.

@rogueclassicist then points out, quite reasonably, that until Greece can guarantee that his visit to see the marbles wouldn’t be prevented by strikes, then he won’t give his support.

As soon as I retweet it, feathers start rustling. I try asking if there are any compromises that either side would agree upon. @Elginism shows me a planned compromise that doesn’t see Athens compromising on much. Ho hum.

The touchy subject of finance is starting to rumble so loudly that I can’t ignore it.

@Elginism pointed out that The Acropolis Museum has deliberately not been state funded for this very reason. If Greece goes bankrupt, the museum will be independent. I hadn’t know that.

However, with various big name tourism companies in the UK and family run hotels and restaurants in Greece on the verge of collapse, it’s not going to be much use having an independently financed museum if nobody can get to it or have anywhere to sleep afterwards. @Eyeonwales is neatly covering my thoughts here so I can stay schtum and let them do the work for a bit.

My beloved @GeneralJules cheekily brings everyone back to my original point, precedence. He asks whether Italy have asked for all the paintings Napoleon nicked and took to France. I can see the Louvre emptying as I type. Napoleon did love a souvenir or seven.

@crazylegsno1 points out that it’s probably not a good idea to send priceless artifacts to a country on the brink of civil war.

@thefirstlexi seems to have been silently watching so far, but finally weighs in with the age old argument of the original legality of Elgin’s permission to take them in the first place. This to me admittedly sounds a bit redundant after so much time and that we should focus on other factors, but I may be in a minority. She also, quite astutely, delivers her Parthian shot. “As for strikes, it’s not like the UK has none.”

Ah yes, UK, we all remember the horrors of the London riots. Thank God the little pricks were more interested in breaking into branches of Curry’s than to head to our museums. It’s a mercy, but we can’t say it won’t happen in the future.

@HewlettElaine wondered whether part of the viewing experience is lost if you peruse the marbles in a UK gallery rather than on the Acropolis they were designed for, but again, the fact that the Acropolis Museum’s designated exhibition space for them is not ideal for easy viewing is a worry for some. Elaine is uncomfortable with the West deciding what is worth saving from the East. However, I maintain that it can’t be denied that Western archaeologists etc have more money and skills to salvage and reserve.

A few of my tweeting friends are DMing me messages of solidarity and congratulations at the magnitude of the debate I’ve caused in the background to this argument which has by now rolled on for nine hours. In that time I spent two hours in ASDA and one hour baking, and yet still different branches of debate rolled on, like branches of a tree stemming from my trunk of initial tweet. I check my tweets, at no time have I decisively stated that I am for one side and against the other. I have merely engaged both sides. The new angles from tweeters gave me much to think about, but it did sadden me at how voracious certain tweeters were. I will not agree with you if you slap me in the face with fifteen tweets telling me why I am wrong, when I haven’t actually expressed a definitive opinion.

And so we reach an impasse, for I cannot make up my mind.

My initial worry still niggles me. People have been looting for millenia. The romans did it to Greece centuries before us Brits did, and we were hardly alone in doing it in our own era of collecting anything that wasn’t, and sometimes was, nailed down. If the global museum community returned every artifact to it’s country of origin, would places like Greece and Rome have room for it all? Probably not. There would be more museums than tavernas and trattoria. The Louvre, British Museum, the Met, the Berlin Museums and countless others would be emptied overnight, as more and more governments cotton on that if they throw a big enough hissy fit, they will get their toys back.

My head loves it that I can browse the galleries of the British Museum and travel the ancient Mediterranean within the space of an afternoon. I see children who visit and start a life long love of history when they’re faced with such wonders first hand, and that can’t be a bad thing. Thanks to collections in museums around the world, children globally can come face to face with incredible ancient art.

For those souls who can’t afford to travel, they will still get the opportunity to see some of our global heritage. I live and breathe the ancient world and I am having to sacrifice a hell of a lot to be able to afford trips to see the places I read and dream about. For many, it simply isn’t an option.

My heart would like to see the Marbles where they were intended to go. I have a huge history crush on Phidias and I am completely in love with ancient Greece. But I am wary of Greece’s current state, tottering on the verge of meltdown. I’d be loathe to return artifacts to a country before it has a chance to resolve much larger issues. However, how marvellous would it be to stare at the art in the same place that Socrates and Plato did? My heart beats faster at the thought.

It will probably infuriate a few tweeters that after all that negotiation and all that debate, I steadfastly refuse to get down from my nice little fence.

I am inclined to simply say that the world is not a perfect place and that not everyone can get what they want. Some will dismiss that as wishywashy, some may accuse me of being indecisive. Some will no doubt unfollow me in a huff because I’ve refused to concede to them. I’ve never been one to define myself by campaigning for one cause above all else and it baffles me when people do.

I am a huge fan of compromise. And until both sides agree to one, I’m not siding either way. There has to be a way to satisfy both. An even compromise. As @elginsim points out, Athens has half of the marbles there already. Perhaps us having the other half is compromise enough.

In conclusion:

After a poll, it seems that twitter (or my followers at least) do firmly want to see the marbles in Athens. Let’s hope Thomas Cook doesn’t go bust.

Please add you two cents in the comments section, no doubt I’ve missed something out.

Further reading:

The kick-ass Mary Beard has written a wonderful history of the Parthenon, titled, funnily enough, The Parthenon. If you want a definitive history of the building and it’s art, this is it.

The wonderful funny and charming Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) has written a blog on his thoughts on the matter, which is frankly, better than my attempt:

And here is the website for @Elginism which has a raft of information:


Filed under musings, Uncategorized

7 responses to “The Parthenon Marbles – or, Stirring the Proverbial on Twitter

  1. Did Nero just rearrange the name of the Parthenon to spell his name? Like mischievous kids do with those signs? Instead of “PARTHENON” he changed it around to read “NERO PATHN”?

      • I was originally just being a bit silly, but that article is actually very interesting, and doesn’t suggest that the inscription was simply a case of Nero “slapping on” his name. My first thought is that Nero (or his government) supplied funds to the Parthenon to do some renovation work (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a great deal of money for a very extensive renovation), and the inscription was added as a kind of “thank you” for the money.

      • Wugmuffin

        Given how quickly the Greeks ripped the inscription off as soon as he died, I doubt it. It’s also doubtful that Nero did a single thing purely out of the goodness of his heart….

  2. lucy

    I originally thought, yes definitely send them back to Greece but now I’m really not sure, maybe it’s selfish on my part that I know I’d probably never make it to Athens to see them and more people see them in their current location…but …then they *belong* in Greece ….but…..they are safer in their current location and there are huge numbers of artefacts in the *wrong* country so…… yep *sits on fence*

  3. Pingback: Stirring up chaos by making the mistake of mentioning the Parthenon Marbles on Twitter » Elginism

  4. I start with the question: in what situation would the marbles be most appreciated by myself? I suggest that is the question that everyone should put to him or herself. That the British Museum receives more visitors than does the Acropolis should not be a factor. The drive to maximise audiences is the death of museums. To follow the contrary argument is to follow Napoleon’s idea of corralling all the greatest works in Paris – today supplemented by London, New York and Tokyo. As for Mary Beard, nothing I have heard her say convinces me that she has any real appreciation of art. But true art has always been a minority interest, so it is not surprising that the question of the location of the marbles is a matter for debate among a minority. Meanwhile the great British public looks on with unconcern at the partition and wrecking of its own national treasure – the bequest of J.M.W.Turner.

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