If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:10:47

Video transcript

[Music] we're in London at the British Museum standing in a gallery devoted to the sculpture of the Parthenon this is a gallery that was designed to house these sculptures which arrived at the British Museum the early 19th century now we're looking at some of the most revered sculpture in all of Western art these sculptures were seen as the high classical style that for hundreds of years we believed we could only hope to reach Eve these sculptures and the building that it came from the Parthenon are more than two thousand years old but the controversy of how these sculptures ended up in London is more than 200 years old what we're looking at are sculptures that are divorced from the building that they came from the Parthenon but they were integral to it and it's impossible to divorce the meaning of these sculptures from their original context there's been a minute looking at one of the panels from the frieze of the Parthenon and why these sculptures and this classical moment of ancient Greece have been so revered in Western art the sculptures on the frieze depict a procession mostly of horses and riders and look at the naturalism here the artists have been examining the anatomy of the nude male but also of the horse look at the way in which the man's thigh bulges out as it presses against the horse but you can see the concavity of the hip bone look at the way that the artist has carefully depicted the twisting of the body the legs are moving forward but the chest turns to face us we can see the ribcage we can see the muscles in the abdomen the muscles in the shoulders and the arms that love of anatomy that we know from ancient Greek art whereas the horse on the right rears up and has a sense of passion and energy the human figures have a calm nobility after the French Revolution Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power fans had been expanding its territory but under Napoleon it begins a campaign to conquer much of Europe it's against this background that the sculpture in this room is taken from Athens and makes its way to London the other import context here is the interest in ancient Greek and Roman antiquities that just explodes in the 18th century you have Napoleon not only conquering territories but bringing scholars with him to help him identify important works of art important monuments that he brings back to France to fill the new musée Napoleon which becomes the Louvre Museum so you have this competition among European powers for the great works of classical antiquity so the man responsible for bringing these sculptures from Athens to London Lord Elgin was a Scottish nobleman and he received an extremely important diplomatic mission he became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and he became ambassador at a critical moment when the British had just won a decisive battle in Egypt so the balance of power shifted away from France so for the Ottomans the French were out and the Kurdish were in and Elgin was the primary representative of the British crown which gave him tremendous power now from the beginning Elgin imagined that he could help develop the arts of Britain and what better way to do that than to furnish the British public with examples of this great moment in Western sculpture the sculptures from the parson on his first idea was to create copies to make molds and have artists draw his motivation was certainly personal in terms of decorating his home in the antique style but it was also generous it was also educational and he asked the British government for funding to help support this artistic endeavor they declined but Elgon went ahead anyway and he hired a team that he sent to Athens now the building had a long complex history I was built as a temple to the goddess Athena but then it had been turned into a church and eventually it had been turned into a mosque but the Ottomans also stored gunpowder there and when they were attacked by the Venetians the building exploded leaving debris across the Acropolis when Elgin's team wanted to begin their work they encountered some problems from the local Ottoman authorities and so they asked Elvan back in Constantinople to secure for them a Fuhrman or a permit which would allow them to do the work on the Acropolis the very first firm in our permit doesn't survive but the second Fuhrman has come down to us in translation it describes what elegance men were allowed to do it says we're allowed to draw and they were allowed to cast they were allowed to erect scaffolding and they were allowed to excavate but the critical passage of this Fuhrman or this permit reads no one should meddle with their scaffolding or implements nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures and it's that last phrase that reads somewhat ambiguously what happens is elegance men see an opportunity through cajoling through bribery through using the power of elegans office to extend the interpretation of this Fuhrman enough to allow them to take sculpture from the Parthenon itself and the act of removing the sculpture was necessarily an act of destruction this is a difficult and expensive endeavor and Elgon is laying out his own money to do this in fact he's borrowing to be able to afford this project he took two hundred and forty seven of the five hundred and twenty-four feet of the frieze he took fifteen Mehta piece out of ninety two and he took 17 sculptures from the pediment now we're just talking about sculptures from the Parthenon there were many other things that he took by this time he was in deep debt and he offered to sell the sculptures to the British government he basically had no choice even storing them was enormous ly expensive the British government convened a parliamentary commission to investigate the circumstances of the acquisition and to determine the quality of the sculpture and to settle on a price ultimately the government did decide that the was required legally and they paid algún thirty-five thousand pounds less than half of what he estimated his own costs to be but from the very beginning there was real criticism leveled against elegant before removing the sculptures from grates and for the destruction that that necessarily caused and soon after the arrival of the Elgin marbles here in Britain priests finally achieves independence from the Ottoman Empire in these sculptures and the Parthenon itself and the buildings on the Acropolis become a symbol of national identity for the Greeks and the Greeks ask for the marbles battle so where does that leave us today the argument that elegans actions were illegal although his critics state that in fact he exceeded his legal authority there's also the argument that is persuasive for many the elegant although doing damage to the building and to any of the sculptures ultimately preserve the sculptures before Eldin got there the French were taking sculptures from the Parthenon so you have not only the French taking things you have tourists who are picking things up off the Acropolis or buying things from local inhabitants everyone wanted a piece of the monuments on the Acropolis but the counter-argument there is strong also elegan actually destroyed the temple in part to remove the sculptures the sculptures themselves suffered a number of cases were exposed to seawater and the British Museum does not have an unblemished role in protecting the sculptures either in the early 20th century they were responsible for an overzealous cleaning there's also another argument that's often made that if the marbles were sent back it would have a kind of ripple effect and so many of the objects that are in encyclopedic museums in the West like the Louvre like the Metropolitan Museum of Art like the British Museum would also need to be sent back to their place of origin the Greeks have built a beautiful modern museum designed especially to house these objects and we can finally have the opportunity to see them all together if they were returned we would also see them closer to their original context we could look out those magnificent glass windows to the Acropolis itself to see these objects in that brilliant Mediterranean sunlight another critical argument made for keeping the sculptures here is that the British Museum is a universal museum and so here it's possible to compare ancient Greek art with ancient Assyrian art with ancient Egyptian art with art from East Asia with art from Africa and there is real benefit to that you could say that the collections of the British Museum promote tolerance and cross-cultural understanding that we understand the objects in the British Museum as being owned by humanity broadly except that it just happens to be in the capital of one of the world's great former empires and an empire that committed violent acts against its colonies and while the Greeks make the argument that the sculptures are central part of Greek identity there are those that argue that the Greeks of ancient Athens are completely different Greeks than the Greeks of the modern era but the Parthenon is distinct and it's different in part because it's not only deeply important to the Greeks it has become deeply important to American culture to British culture to French culture to a kind of global culture what the ancient Greeks did in Athens in the 5th century has had the most profound impact on modern society that this culture has been embraced universally the classical art historian archaeologist Mary beard puts this just beautifully she wrote the debate that surrounds the Elgin marbles forces us to face the unanswerable question of who can and should own the monument can a single monument act as a simple both of nationhood and of world culture so how do we reconcile the universal meaning of these sculptures the meeting that we've given them that these sculptures stand for democracy and for the nobility of humankind how do we balance that with the fact that it was indeed the Greeks who made this incredible contribution to Western civilization you