The Savvy Tourist: Visit The Elgin Marbles At The British Museum

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 28 November 2023

The Savvy Tourist: Visit The Elgin Marbles At The British Museum

The Parthenon Sculptures — or Elgin Marbles — are a true wonder of the world, not to mention batshit crazy. You can see them for free in London at the British Museum (for now, anyway). Here's what you need to know.

Visit the British Museum: A man takes a photo of sculptures
The Elgin Marbles: something everyone should see.

What are they, exactly? An astonishing collection of ancient Greek marble sculptures and reliefs, which once adorned the (still-standing) Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, a flashy temple which once house a colossal golden statue of Athena (lost to time). Now a star attraction at the free-to-visit British Museum.

And what are they called again? The Elgin Marbles. Or the Parthenon Marbles. Or the Parthenon Sculptures. Basically 'Elgin Marbles' relates specifically to what's in the British Museum. 'Parthenon Marbles/Sculptures' relates to the wider collection, scattered worldwide. Except nowadays the British Museum calls its collection the Parthenon Sculptures. Clear as mud?

A row of the reliefs
The friezes depict a procession of Athenians, on their way to pay homage to the gods.
A man studies the sculptures
The sculptures fall into three categories: friezes, metopes and pediment statues.

And Elgin was the artist, right? Er, no. That would be sculptor extraordinaire, Phidias, who was creative director, or whatever the job title was back in 447BC.

So who was this Elgin fella then? Lord Elgin — British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — came to Athens at the start of the 19th century, took an interest in the marble artworks, and began slipping bits of it in his Ryanair hand luggage, or something to that effect. The sculptures first went on show in London in 1807, and in 1832, came to the British Museum, where they've been ever since.

Classical frontage of the British Museum
The British Museum is the home of the Elgin Marbles... for now.
Egyptian statues in the British Museum
There's plenty to distract you on your way to the Elgin Marbles.

Oh yeah, isn't there a whole 'thing'? To put it mildly. The British Museum/Government say it's incontrovertible that Elgin had written permission to take what he took. Greece says the sculptures were stolen, that the British Museum doesn't know how to look after them properly, and demands them back. The British Museum says that a loan to Greece is possible, but a request has never been made. Arguments have been rumbling on for decades, with stories in the news every other week.

Where can I find these marbles/sculptures you speak of? Until Greece gets its way, Room 18 of the British Museum. First left after passing through the main entrance, then weave your way through various fascinating objects from the ancient world/school parties from the modern world.

Engraving in the wall noting the opening of this room
The Elgin Marbles have been in this particular room since the 1960s.
Relief of riders on horseback
The friezes might be battered, but the detail is still something else.

What are the sculptures about? The frieze — which, at 75 metres long, fills the lion's share of the room, and forms part of a section once wrapped around the Parthenon — depict a procession of Athenians on their way to pay homage to the gods. There are be-tuniced horse riders, chariots, branch and water jug bearers, musicians — plus a gaggle of gods lapping up the attention. The devil's in the detail, as heifers get nervy that they're about to be sacrificed (which they are), and various people turning to see what's going on behind them.

OK, but it's all in good taste, right? If you consider rippling torsos, miracle working, duelling gods, kidnap and wedding punch-ups with Greeks being kneed in the balls by pissed-up centaurs all rather quaint, then yes, I suppose it is.

Sculpture with a centaur kicking a lapith in the balls
Ouch, I felt that.
Two statues duffing each other up
Standard wedding punch-up.

Sorry, for a moment there, I thought you said something about 'pissed-up centaurs'? At either end of the room are 15 of the original 92 metopes (a secondary frieze), depicting the wedding of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths. In all good faith the Lapiths have invited along a load of centaurs to their do, only for the guests to partake in too much wedding wine, prompting them to start stealing the womenfolk. A manic punch-up has ensued, the captions reading like a storyboard from a Marvel comic.

Example please? "The Centaur tramples a falling Lapith. He grips his victim by the hair as he prepares to strike. The Lapith has once last hope — a stone that he is taking up from the ground."

A horse's head
One seriously knackered horse.
Naked male figure, shot from the back
Top tip: you can get around the back of the pediment statues too.

Nice, I love a bit of drama! Good, well there are also 21 sculptures from the temple's east and west pediments, featuring naked gods, knackered horses and the like. All rather smashed up. The sculptures themselves are imbued with centuries of drama; in its time the Parthenon has weathered numerous earthquakes, and flitted from temple to church to mosque to fortification. And it was while being used as a fortification in 1687 by the Turks, that the Parthenon was blown up — 300 killed. Bizarre to think that some of these huge shards of art have been the death of people.

So it's not in mint condition then? I mean, half of it's still in Greece, so no. Missing noggins, limbs and penises everywhere. But imho the Parthenon Sculptures are made all the more intriguing because of what's missing — and the general sense of utter chaos. By the way, the stonework was once vividly painted in blues, reds and golds, like so:

a slab of stone painted with vivid blue, gold and red
Now imagine it all painted up like this.
A centaur being duffed up
One more picture of a centaur being duffed up for the road.

Ballpark, how long's this going to take me? Even to skim the surface of this remarkable collection, you'll want to give yourself an hour. But, what with the two smaller rooms — one featuring plaster casts you can get your sticky mitts all over — you might want more. Some people spend half a day in here, studying, drawing and — if our noses didn't deceive us — staring in stoned wonder. No recreational drugs required though — this place is trippy enough. If you're lucky enough to be a Londoner, you'll want to come back again and again.

Where do I go from here? You could explore the rest of the British Museum, or you might want to go and seek out the rest of the at the Parthenon Sculptures at the Acropolis Museum in Greece. Oh, or seek out the, er, tastefully done? reproduction of the Athena statue in Nashville. Most likely though, you'll just want to nip across the road and take stock of it all, with a pint at the Museum Tavern.

The vast hall where the sculptures are kept
The Parthenon Sculptures are made all the more intriguing because of what's missing.

TL;DR: Stunning free collection of highly contentious, very violent ancient Greek sculptures in the British Museum, which'll blow your tiny mind and prompt you to seek out a beer.

All images © Londonist