Greece wants its treasured Elgin Marbles back, but the law won't be on their side

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Marco Werman: Finally today, Greece says it's giving up its legal claim to the Elgin Marbles. Okay, I know the name and I know that they're Greek and that for some reason, they're in the British Museum. But I don't really know that much more about the Elgin Marbles, so who better to ask than The World's one-man history desk, Chris Woolf.


Chris Woolf: Well, Marco, we're talking about statues. Reliefs, friezes, wall-sized pieces of stuff that are elegantly carved into the shapes of people and animals and the natural world. And they're all from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. If people don't know what that is, there's this giant hill, the old Citadel of Athens, and back in the day when Athens was the center of the civilized world, two-and-a-half thousand years ago, they beautified their most important public buildings with statues and reliefs and friezes carved from marble.


Werman: So how did these statues end up in England, and when did it happen?


Woolf: This is about 200 years ago, when the British ambassador to Turkey — Turkey, for hundreds of years, actually governed Greece, and not very happily, I have to say. So the British ambassador, a guy called Thomas Bruce, who was the 7th Earl of Elgin, which is a place in Scotland, took it upon himself to document the remaining statues that were in the Acropolis, but then decided that wasn't good enough. He decided they'd be much safer in England, so he started carting them out. He had to cut a deal with the Turks, the Turkish sultan, to give this a fig leaf of respectability and legality, but obviously no one asked the Greeks what they wanted to do with it. And over a period of years, at his own expense, he had them all shipped to London.


Werman: And did the government in London, the British government, approve of this?


Woolf: Well, he had this idea before he went, and he actually asked the government, hey, how about doing something like this? And they specifically said no, it would be wrong. And it was a huge controversy in the UK at the time. A lot of people protested what they called this vandalism and looting even then. But eventually the new British government came around and decided to acquire the entire collection.


Werman: So now Greece is giving up its claim to the Elgin Marbles. What do you reckon that means for Greeks and their own sense of heritage and patriotism and culture?


Woolf: Well, I don't think that's been damaged. My reading of it is they're giving up this legal action that they were pursuing. They were trying to get them back through the courts, this initiative they started last year. And I think when you look at the documentation, however sketchy it was, their claim probably wouldn't have stood up in court. So it looks like they're going to persist in trying to get the Marbles back through political and diplomatic channels, but they're not going to try the legal action.


Werman: Why do you think Britain is so determined to hold on to them if they're not British?


Woolf: Well, there's been a variety of justifications over the years. Initially, when Greeks launched their war for independence, there was a lot of damage to the stuff that remained, even on the Acropolis. And so I think there was a kind of a touch of, I want to say paternalistic at best, kind of neo-colonial at worst, attitude for much of the 20th century that trust us, we know how to look after this stuff, not the Greeks. And I think that's gone now, and so I think it's conceivable that in due course there may be some kind of agreement, but the stubbornness persists.


Werman: The World's man on the history desk, Chris Woolf, thank you, as always.


Woolf: You're welcome, Marco.


Werman: And from the Nan and Bill Harris Studios here at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. Thank you for being with us.