The Parthenon Marbles held in the British Museum continue to occupy the forefront of an ongoing debate about the repatriation of art. Following reports of a series of “secret” meetings involving the sculptures, the UK government confirmed there would be no changes to the law to facilitate their return to Greece.
Crafted between 447 and 432 BC under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias and his assistants, the marbles from the British Museum’s collection are displayed in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery, after having graced the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. They consist of 15 metopes (sculpted relief panels), 17 pedimental figures and 247 feet of the original frieze. The sculptures depict impressive scenes of battle and festive procession as well as reclining deities.
Collectively, the British Museum’s collection makes up half of the surviving Parthenon sculptures.
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On Saturday, Greek newspaper Ta Nea revealed that since November 2021, the president of the British Museum, George Osborne, has held a series of “secret” discussions on the return of the marbles with senior Greek government officials, including Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis . The last meeting between Mitsotakis and Osborne was last week and insiders say negotiations are at an “advanced stage”.
Greece has long claimed that the marbles were stolen and has campaigned for their repatriation. On the other hand, the British Museum, together with the UK government, defended their right to own and exhibit them.
At issue are the actions of Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. After obtaining permission, Elgin removed the sculptures and later sold them to the British government in 1816.
Elgin’s actions were investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, before the sculptures entered the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament. Arguments against the legality of Elgin’s actions since then have centered on the original permission, namely whether the Ottomans specifically authorized the removal of the sculptures and whether they had the authority to do so in the first place.
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The Greek government made its first official request decades ago, but for the first time in many years, the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles into Athens’ specially designed Acropolis Museum looks like a real possibility.
At an event at the London School of Economics last week, Mitsotakis explained that progress was being made towards a “win-win solution” for the two sides. “I feel the momentum,” Mitsotakis added.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that while trustees are free to talk to whoever they want, the British government “has no intention of changing the law, which prevents the removal of objects from the British Museum’s collection unless under certain circumstances.”
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Under the British Museum Act 1963, objects can only be removed if they are ‘duplicates’ or if ‘the object is not fit to be held in the Museum’s collections and can be disposed of without prejudice to the interests of students’.
The British Museum responded to the reports in a statement on Monday.
“We are looking for new positive and long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that obviously includes Greece,” he said.
However, the Museum intends to operate in compliance with the law, explaining that it will not dismantle its collection “because it tells a unique story of our common humanity”.
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A compromise could see the marbles shared between the two countries.
However, former UK culture secretary Ben Bradshaw explained to Ta Nea: ‘I don’t think anyone is seriously thinking that when the marbles come back [to Athens] they will never come back.”