On the 11th of June, 2012, Cadogan Hall was the stage for a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared on one of the most controversial political landmines between Great Britain and modern Greece: the Parthenon Marbles. The hall hosted a debate--two in favor, two against--the return of said marbles to Greece with the goal of convincing at least the audience of their standpoint. Speaking against the motion were Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a William P Reynolds Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, and Tristram Hunt, broadcaster, historian and newspaper columnist, and the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Speaking in favor of the motion were Andrew George, Chair of Marbles Reunite, and Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, and actor, writer, comedian, and broadcaster, Stephen Fry.

556 people watched the 45 minute debate. In a poll taken before the event asking audience members if they would like the marbles to be returned to Greece, 196 voted for, 202 against and 158 didn’t know. Then this happened:

The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, is a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Parthenon while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
The Parthenon Marbles acquired by Elgin include seventeen figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments of the Parthenon, fifteen (of the original 92) of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 247 feet (75 meters) of the original 524 feet (160 meters) of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. Elgin's acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Treasury of Atreus.
As Stephen Fry explains during the debate, the legality of the purchase of these marbles is controversial at best. Yes, the documents were signed by the leaders of Greece at the time, but these were the occupation. As Fry so beautifully explains, it would have been like purchacing the Nightwatch from the Dutch during Nazi German occupation; the Nightwatch would not have rightfully belonged to the Germans at the time of purchase and I am quite sure it would have been returned to my country as soon as possible after the war. So, why are the Parthenon Marbles still in a British museum?
There are many reasons for and against returning the marbles to Athens, where a museum was opened in 2009 which would be capable of showcasing these precious items. I'm going to borrow Wikipedia for a list of the pro's and con's tied to returning the marbles:
 Rationale for returning to Athens:
  • The main stated aim of the Greek campaign is to reunite the Parthenon sculptures around the world in order to restore "organic elements" which "at present remain without cohesion, homogeneity and historicity of the monument to which they belong" and allow visitors to better appreciate them as a whole;
  • Presenting all the extant Parthenon Marbles in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their "fuller understanding and interpretation";
  • Precedents have been set with the return of fragments of the monument by Sweden, the University of Heidelberg, Germany, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Vatican;
  • That the marbles may have been obtained illegally and hence should be returned to their rightful owner;
  • Returning the Parthenon sculptures (it should be noted that Greece is requesting only the return of sculptures from this particular building) would not set a precedent for other restitution claims because of the distinctively "universal value" of the Parthenon;
  • Safekeeping of the marbles would be ensured at the New Acropolis Museum, situated to the south of the Acropolis hill. It was built to hold the Parthenon sculpture in natural sunlight that characterises the Athenian climate, arranged in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon. The museum's facilities have been equipped with state-of-the-art technology for the protection and preservation of exhibits;
  • The friezes are part of a single work of art, thus it is nonsensical that fragments of this piece be scattered across different locations, just as it would be nonsensical, for example, to have pieces of the Mona Lisa scattered across different locations;
  • Casts of the marbles would be just as able to demonstrate the cultural influences which Greek sculptures have had upon European art as would the original marbles, whereas the context with which the marbles belong cannot be replicated within the British museum.
Rationale for retaining in London:
  • The assertion that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world's great museums – this has also caused concerns among other European and American museums, with one potential target being the famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's Neues Museum; in addition, portions of Parthenon marbles are kept by many other European museums, so the Greeks would then establish a precedent to claim these other artworks;
  • Some scholars argue that the marbles were saved from what would have been severe damage from pollution and other factors, which could have perhaps destroyed the marbles, if they had been located in Athens the past few hundred years;
  • Experts agree that Greece could mount no court case because Elgin was granted permission by what was then Greece's ruling government and a legal principle of limitation would apply, i.e. the ability to pursue claims expires after a period of time prescribed by law;
  • More than half the original marbles are lost and therefore the return of the Elgin Marbles could never complete the collection in Greece. In addition, many of the marbles are too fragile to travel from London to Athens;
  • Display in the British museum puts the sculptures in a European artistic context, alongside the work of art which both influenced and was influenced by Greek sculpture. This allows parallels to be drawn with the art of other cultures;
  • The notion that the Parthenon sculptures are an item of global rather than solely Greek significance strengthens the argument that they should remain in a museum which is both free to visit, and located in one of Europe's most visited cities. The government of Greece intends to charge visitors of the New Acropolis Museum, where they can view the marbles (as of 2011 the price is €5).
  • A legal position that the museum is banned by charter from returning any part of its collection.
I have made it clear before that I feel any piece of ancient Hellenic art should--at least on paper--be returned to their country of origin. I feel that way about all historical art. That doesn't mean I feel that all pieces should be physically returned to their country of origin; not even Greece needs al they pottery returned to them and every statue ever made; taking care of this classical art takes time, money, and space, and especially Greece right now would struggle to provide all three right now if the whole world suddenly gave back all their art pieces. That said, there are exceptions--like the Parthenon Marbles. these are so specific, so telling of history, that they should return to where they were first created. The Parthenon Marbles belong in Athens. The British Museum in London can put on display casts of the marbles, or a movie of the time they stent in Britain, or a 3D print. They wouldn't have to be removed from the museum all together, but these marbles--I feel--need to go home.
It's been a long fight to get the marbles returned, and so far, nothing has happened. As for the debate: the audience was asked to take the same poll after the debate. This time, the poll showed a majority of 384 voting in favour of returning the marbles. Where do you stand on the issue? And have your viewpoints changed after watching the debate?