Elgin with his chaplain and crew removed dozens of statues and other exquisite carvings from the eastern pediment of the monument which symbolises Greek history, its civilization and is the very symbol of the Greek nation. It is a unique UNESCO designated cultural monument and the Parthenon is in fact the symbol of the United Nations' cultural agency logo.
One should note that the Parthenon had not been looted by any invader for 2,300 years and that it was put in danger, and desecrated, by Lord Elgin. At approximately the same time an English contemporary writer recounted how a senior official of the British Consulate in Constantinople had a hobby of breaking off the noses of Greek statues in Athens whenever he visited Greece, and took great pride in showing off to his guests the collection of vandalised noses he had in his office at the British Consulate by the Bosporus. But Elgin and the nose-vandal were in the minority among the many British PhilHellenes who supported Greece. An English contemporary of Lord Elgin wrote, in Latin, on the plastered base of a missing looted statue from the Acropolis, the following words:
QUOD NON FECERUNT GOTI, FECERUNT SCOTI
“That which the Goths (and Vandals) did not do, was done by the Scots”
British troops, archaeologists and diplomats cast a worldwide net to bring the treasures of formerly superior civilizations to display in their capital, in a museum built for this very purpose - to show the spoils of war and to attract visitors to view the artifacts of great civilizations whose creators had not of course agreed to their history and their most valuable cultural and religious (as in the case of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena) artifacts being taken away to be put on display by England.
Britain had power, money and a fearsome military machine, but it lacked domestic cultural objects of value. The rough-hewn stone blocks of Stonehenge and broken pots and pans of the Roman legions who had bivouacked in Londinium were not worthy of an Empire which otherwise had the trappings of grandeur and an attitude rooted in the belief of absolute racial superiority and that the actions of colonising the world were those of Manifest Destiny. It was an empire that declared, as recently as 1940, that it would last "for a Thousand Years".
It fell apart, in just 25, after this declaration by Winston Churchill, its colonies rebelled and one by one Britain's foreign subjects took control of their own lives and their national destinies. Empire thus became Commonwealth.
Chinese were allowed once more into the parks of Shanghai after removing the signs which said "No Dogs or Chinese". Kenyans were allowed to buy farms in Nakuru and Nairobi where their forefathers had lived for hundreds of years. Oxford and Cambridge-educated Africans, after dining in the halls of Balliol and Magdalene, were finally allowed to order coffee and tea in hotel lounges and to sit in the upper circle seats at the cinema in their own countries. Britain dismantled laws which "forbade" the return of countries to their nationals control.
India was given back, as were Cyprus, Ghana, Burma, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Malaya, Kuwait, Iraq, Canada Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, and a hundred other countries. A century earlier Britain had been forced by English men of conscience to stop the lucrative trade in African slaves and the barter in opium, for which Britain waged two wars with China.
One by one, colonial "possessions" were returned and Britain withdrew, to enter the newly formed European Union, but it still hung on to isolated vestiges of its grand past with its antiquated monetary system and theatrical white wigs worn by British lawyers and judges. With its entry into the EU the final curtain of Britain's Empire was lowered.
Elizabeth Regina I had created the empire, Elizabeth Regina II was the monarch who, perhaps tragically, saw the sun set on one after the other of her "own" colonies, protectorates, mandates, trust territories, and dominions. Queen Elizabeth II will go down in history as the monarch who was forced to give back a quarter of the world their freedom, after hundreds of thousands of her subjects had paid a blood price first to bring Britain to the negotiating table. Great Britain entered the EU as the "United Kingdom" after a name dispute with Charles de Gaulle, who violently objected to England using the word Britain (Bretagne). The UK finally became a modern European democracy, however with an unelected upper House – the House of Lords - and a hereditary head of state, the monarch. It was now an equal partner in the EU that it entered as a polyglot and multicultural nation with a past. (It has now with Brexit voted to leave the EU and will once again chart its own course).
As a leading example of a democratic country it is ironic that the British people have a democratic right only to choose the representatives of the most junior of the three institutions that rule them - The House of Commons!
Like an aged spinster who zealously guards mementos of her youth, photographs of bygone, happier days, and objects that remind her of a grander past, so in Britain, in London's Russell Square, another aging spinster, the British Museum, jealously clings to acquisitions of past centuries, the well guarded keepsakes of a glorious, but dead, past. Successive British governments have accommodated, with varying degrees of support or inaction, the trustees of the museum, with the tolerance that one has for an eccentric relative whose memories are rooted in another age.
There is little doubt that the position of the Museum in hanging on to the Parthenon Marbles has been surpassed by history and by the democratic values of today. It must surely be a historic embarrassment, overt for some Britons, covert for others. The British Museum today is somewhat of a sad institution, demanding that others comply with its Victorian-era mentality rooted in the early 19th century when Royal Navy gunboats would threaten foreigners who did not step aside, and era when slaves were bought, transported and sold under the protection of the Crown, its agents and the Royal Navy. That era is gone. Britain and the world have changed. Colonial booty is no longer something to be proud of, or to be displayed as trophies.
We at IPSACI, along with organisations and individuals around the world, insist that the Parthenon Sculptures be returned to Athens, to the city where they were located for more than twenty centuries, until Elgin took them home, without ever producing any documents that he had acquired the statues legally (since there were none). In the debate in 1816, in Parliament, there was very vocal objection to their purchase by the British government , and only an Italian translation of a (non-existent) firman, was referred to, giving Elgin permission to draw the Parthenon and to pick up broken stones from the ground around the temple. The sculptures bought from Elgin amid this controversy were then placed in the British Museum for display and remain there until today. A reminder of when force of arms and occupation was a source of pride, as was the display of artefacts taken from enslaved countries, as was Greece under the Turks when Elgin desecrated the Parthenon.