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

Bonnie Greer on the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum

Playwright, author and British Museum trustee, Bonnie Greer celebrates the enduring beauty and humanity of the Parthenon Sculptures.The Parthenon was built as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. It was the centerpiece of an ambitious building program on the Acropolis of Athens. The temple's great size and lavish use of white marble was intended to show off the city's power and wealth at the height of its empire. © Trustees of the British Museum. Created by British Museum.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

[Bonnie Greer]: The Parthenon sculptures are one of the reasons that I'm really proud to be a Trustee of the British Museum I really believe that they belong here. I've been trying to figure out why I think that way. The Parthenon sculptures were brought from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin to Britain at the start of the 19th century. Originally, they were placed up on the side of the great Athenian temple. For me, these wonderful sculptures raised the bar artistically for everything that came since. As a playwright, I love the narrative power of this. I love its vigour. You could write speech bubbles... A thousand people could have speeches coming out of these guys' mouths and you would never exhaust what their relationship to each other is. It's absolutely magnificent. They are so beautiful. I mean, sometimes when I look at them, they really seem like they're alive. [Ian Jenkins]:Well, it's the ultimate in alchemy, isn't it. You take cold, hard marble and you turn it into warm flesh and flowing drapery. [Visitor]:Well, first of all, this is the first time for me that I see the place. And I am very impressed. And I think that they are simply perfect. I mean, they are so simple, but the same time, they have everything. [Visitor]:Probably the most beautiful things, sculptures I've ever seen really. [Visitor]: To be able to come into the city of London and just go back to a time where such art like this was created is very exciting. [Ian Jenkins]:They become great works of art because they have been taken from the building, placed in front of the spectator. There is another body of sculpture from the Parthenon... ...and that is gradually being brought down to earth as part of the great conservation programme that our colleagues in Greece are undertaking. The British Museum is a centre for Parthenon studies, and actively researches the sculptures. It works with scholars from all around the world, including colleagues in Athens. With them, we share a desire for better understanding of what the sculptures meant to people in antiquity. And indeed, what the sculptures looked like before so many of them were broken or lost. Computer graphics can help here, especially in restoring missing parts... ...offering alternative restorations and even reconstructing the colours that may once have been applied to the marble. [Bonnie Greer]: At the British Museum, you can see the marbles next to earlier cultures that influenced the Greeks You know, it's amazing to think that when the Greeks were learning from and admiring these objects... ...they were as far away from the Egyptians as we are from the Greeks today. But just as interesting is the influence they wielded over those that came after Walk around the Roman gallery, and you can see how slavishly they copied the Greeks they so admired. 1500 years later Renaissance artists like Michaelangelo were inspired by these Roman copies... ...as you can see in the Museum's Prints and Drawings room. [Ian Jenkins]: A drawing like this study for the creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling... ...makes marvellous comparison with the reclining river god from the West pediment of the Parthenon. And we can see him re-fitting the human form... ... to create his ideal version [Bonnie Greer]: But moving on to the Indian galleries, other more surprising connections can be made. You know, Sonna, this really reminds me of the sculptures and Greek art in general, because.... ...look at the flow here, the drapery flows and the foot stance... and this heroic arms outstretched, and the shoulders... It's very Greek, isn't it? [Sona Datta]: It's very interesting you should say that because this sculpture comes from about the 2nd century AD... ...from a place in the northwestern frontier which is today Pakistan. And where the remnants of Alexander's army penetrated India... ... and so they were trying to be absorbed into the majority faith. So, what do you do? How do you make that easier? You dress the Buddha up to look like a Greek. [Bonnie Greer]: Throughout the Museum, you can find exciting parallels with other cultures and other times. Writer and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman is making a film about the influence the sculptures had on British artists in the 19th century. [Jeremy Paxman]: The Victorians saw their culture and their empire as being the modern version of the Greek empire or the Roman empire. And at a time when they were starting to address all these issues of what constituted human beauty. You couldn't do much better than this really, I think. [Bonnie Greer]: The Parthenon sculptures raises the bar for all of us. ... and it includes everybody all over the world.... ...and is for all of us, all over the world.