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The Parthenon in Athens, Greece (Bertrand Gardel / Hemis / Corbis)

Who Owns History?

Greece demands the return of ancient artifacts from the British Museum

Many museums are famous for their ancient sculptures and artifacts. Some have displayed these treasures for decades. But many of these objects originally came from other countries—and some of those nations are demanding they be returned.

One of the biggest feuds is over a collection of sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles. They once decorated the outside of the Parthenon, a temple in Athens, Greece, that’s nearly 2,500 years old. The sculptures have been a big attraction at the British Museum in London for almost 200 years. But the Greek government wants them back. Should they be returned?

PIECES OF THE PAST

The Parthenon is one of the most famous structures of the ancient world. Completed in 432 B.C., it was built to honor the Greek goddess Athena.

But by 1801, the Parthenon was falling apart. The British ambassador to Greece, Lord Elgin, wanted to save the temple’s marble sculptures. After asking for permission to remove them, Elgin had workers chisel some sculptures off the temple and pick up others that had fallen to the ground.

Elgin later sold the sculptures to the British government, which turned them over to the British Museum. The Elgin Marbles have been on display there since 1816.

FINDERS KEEPERS?

For decades, Greece has argued that Elgin didn’t really have permission to take the sculptures. But the British Museum says it received the Elgin Marbles fairly—and it has refused Greece’s repeated demands to return them. The museum says the prized artifacts likely would have been damaged or destroyed if they had remained in Athens.

Many Greeks consider the sculptures an important part of their culture and history. Greek officials want to display them in a new museum not far from their original home in Athens.

In a speech at the United Nations, Greece’s ambassador argued that “the [illegal] removal or destruction of cultural property deprives peoples of their history and tradition.”

This article appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of Scholastic News Edition 5/6. For more from Scholastic News, click here.

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