Parthenon sculptures in British Museum: 'Unfinished' National Monument of Scotland is a reminder to right a long-standing wrong – Ian Johnston

When the National Youth Choir of Scotland decided to celebrate their renewed freedom to sing together in person, following the long separation enforced by Covid, they chose a special place to do it: the National Monument of Scotland on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.

Modelled on the Parthenon in Athens, it was built in the 1820s – in memory of soldiers killed during the Napoleonic Wars – but apparently left unfinished because of a lack of funds, although I have read suggestions it was actually meant to be like that.

Whatever the truth, it is a reminder of the extraordinary abilities of artists who lived 2,500 years ago and some 2,000 miles away in Athens. And their work has been copied all over the world, not just in Edinburgh.

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This incomplete monument can also serve as a reminder that the original on the Acropolis is itself not whole. This is partly because the temple-turned-church-turned-mosque-turned-munitions-store was blown up during the latter incarnation by an artillery shell fired by Venetian forces besieging an Ottoman garrison in 1687.

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But it is also incomplete because of the actions of Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, who had some of the Parthenon’s finest sculptures roughly cut off and taken back to Britain in the early 1800s, and the refusal by successive UK governments to agree to arguments made by Greece, consistently supported by a majority of the British public, that it would be better if these sculptures were not in the British Museum in London, but all together in Athens.

None of the counter-arguments stand any scrutiny. The UK is basically standing in the way of the restoration of one of humanity’s greatest-ever buildings.

Why is it so great? Why has the Parthenon been so long admired?

The National Youth Choir of Scotland, with founder and conductor Christopher Bell, meet on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, to sing together in person for the first time since March last year (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Could it be because the people who built it were members of the world’s first democracy and therefore had the freedom to debate and challenge ideas about art, architecture and life in general, rather than simply acting on instructions from some tyrant who prefers art the way it’s always been done?

Brexit was a missed opportunity to return the sculptures, once ridiculously called “Elgin’s marbles”, as a gift to make our divorce from the EU more amicable. But the cause of reunification will endure until the UK finally agrees to do the right thing.

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The Parthenon in Greece is undergoing a painstaking restoration process while its sculptures are kept in the nearby Acropolis Museum (Picture: Ian Johnston)
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