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Who owns the Parthenon Sculptures?
Peter Hancock, OBE

Dr Peter Hancock is an architect and urban designer who, in principle, is in favour of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens. He was also an entrant in the first New Acropolis Museum competition. He has a PhD in urban and regional planning.

The prospect of the New Acropolis Museum, in Athens, being opened shortly, resurrects the 200-year old debate on the question of the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles. More properly called the Parthenon Sculptures, these superlative artefacts, the work of the ancient Greek sculptor, Pheidias and his assistants, were purchased by the British government from Lord Elgin who, in turn, had acquired the sculptures from the Ottoman Turks, when they were in occupation of Greece.

The rights and wrongs, pros and cons of the issue have been debated and argued, ad nauseam, by the Greek and British governments and the current holders of these irreplaceable


sculptures, the British Museum. Simply stated, the two cases are as follows: The Greeks say ‘they’re ours; and we want them back’; the British government (via the British Museum) says: ‘They’re ours; we paid for them; and we’re keeping them’. With a view to the return of the Parthenon sculptures, planned to coincide with the 2004 Olympic Games, in Athens, the Greek government organized an open architectural design competition for a New Acropolis Museum. The site was below the Acropolis, where the 3-storey Centre for Acropolis Studies is located.

This competition was superseded by a second limited competition, which was won by Bernard Tschumi. It is this building which is due to open soon, five years behind schedule. The Parthenon sculptures were not returned by the British museum, which is governed by an act of the United Kingdom parliament, which clearly stipulates that the Parthenon sculptures are the property of the British Museum and may not be alienated. Roughly 40% of the remaining Parthenon sculptures are in Athens and 60% in the British Museum. In the New Acropolis museum, there will be many gaps in the Parthenon sculptures, to be replaced, pro tem, by replicas.

The actual museum design is rectangular on plan, roughly similar in size to the Parthenon plan’s footprint. The entrance is on the western side of the site, approached from Dionysios Areopagitou street, forming the northern site boundary. The top storey is a rectangular glass box, set skew to the museum building below, and aligned parallel to the Parthenon. The new Acropolis Museum has cost well over $100 million of the Greek


taxpayers’ money. There is another question: is the New Acropolis Museum appropriate for the return of the sculptures? So, how are the Parthenon sculptures ever to be returned?

A possible, but improbable, first step would be for the British government to authorize, in principle, their return from the British Museum, which in English law is the legal owner. A second step would be for the British Museum to insist on the return to a museum which faithfully echoed the ideals, aesthetics and forms of the ancient Greeks, in terms of a spatial location (i.e. not surrounded and overlooked by existing buildings), but on an elevated site, with distant views of the Aegean, analogous to the Parthenon on the Acropolis (Greek for ‘elevated city, or citadel’).

See the winning design for the New Acropolis Museum here

Or, see Peter Hancock's Parthenon Museum proposal based on his entry for the New Acropolis Museum here.



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