Marketing strategies for the Parthenon marbles

The Parthenon Marbles

Parthenon Marbles as seen in the British Museum

The question as to where historical artifacts really belong has always been an appealing topic for public debate. After political turmoil, wars, occupations etc some early era entrepreneurs seized opportunities and transferred – under questionable circumstances – historical pieces of significant value. One such example is the Parthenon Sculptures which have been exhibited at the British museum for roughly 200 years after being sold by Lord Elgin. Media coverage on this critical cultural issue is increasing in prominent journals (Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New York Times).

We all acknowledge that the British Museum has taken exceptional care of the Marbles  and has enabled millions of visitors to enjoy their view, and thousands of academics to research and explore them. In this article we make reference to the two sides of the debate about the ‘righteous’ location for the exhibit of the Marbles. According to the Greek side, the modern Acropolis Museum was built in 2003 with a state of the art architecture and design, to house every artifact found on the rock and on the surrounding slopes. As air pollution and acid rain have damaged the marble,  the last remaining slabs from the western section of the Parthenon frieze were removed from the monument in 1993, for fear of further damage and have now been transported to the New Acropolis Museum. The Greek argument claims  that safekeeping of the marbles is ensured at the new museum, and that presenting the totality of the marbles in the same way as they were in the Parthenon is not only ethically imperative but also invaluable. The museum’s facilities have been equipped with leading edge  technology for the protection, presentation and preservation of exhibits.

Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, Archibald Archer

On the other hand the British Museum’s position is that the museum exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world from the dawn of human history over 2 million years ago, to the present day. In this  context, the Parthenon marbles represent the culture of ancient Athens. Millions of visitors of the British Museum have the chance to gain an insight about ancient Greece’s influence on civilization. The display in the British Museum does not alter the view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. Furthermore, plenty of temporary exhibitions take place internally to describe the history of the marbles. 

The arguments from both sides and their respective public struggle will certainly go on over the next few years;  no one can really predict the outcome of this cultural debate. An observation we would like to make however, is with regards to the communication and marketing of each side’s arguments. Very early on, when the debate started to grow in 2015,  we were impressed by the British Museum’s readiness to communicate with the public. The Museum designed its marketing strategy and put it immediately to action. In this context, it published a pamphlet that every guest could access when he/she visited the Room with the Parthenon sculptures; in the flyer one could  read about the museums’ point of view and learn more about the history of the sculptures, and explore further on the issue, through links to websites and literature that were provided. This was a clever act executed swiftly by the British Museum. Unfortunately the visitor at the Acropolis Museum did not find a similar flyer -explaining the Greek side of the story- at that time. Having said that, it seems that the Greek government has recently reflected upon its own strategic approach. An indication is the recent  reference of EU’s position in the negotiations with Britain about their future relationship, whereby the EU seeks the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”. As it happens, this reference was added at the request of Greece. Greece’s minister of culture also added last month that Athens would step up its campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles as Brexit diminishes Britain’s influence.

So for now it’s a waiting game, but one thing is certain: marketing strategies should not be underestimated in this process.  

This article was originally written for the Wide Strategy blog by Lyda Modiano and Serafeim Zormpas

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