The repatriation of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ in the British Museum back to the Acropolis in Athens has been the subject of official debate for nearly forty years, since Greece first put in a request for the objects to be returned in 1983. Now, only a year after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson firmly reiterated that they would not be returned, UNESCO has announced that both the U.K. and Greece have agreed to hold formal talks about the status of the marbles.
The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, have been held in the British Museum for over two hundred years, since 1816. They are referred to as the Elgin Marbles as it was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841) who controversially procured them from the Parthenon and arranged their transportation back to Britain. The marbles are of significance to studies of Classical Greek art: they were made between 447 BCE and 432 BCE under the supervision of architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants, and include a frieze depicting the procession of a Panathenaic festival commemorating the birthday of the Greek goddess Athena, as well as a metopes (sculpted relief panels) and figures from the temple’s pediments.
The British Museum currently has in its collection 15 metopes, 17 pediment figures and a 75 metre portion of the original frieze. Lord Elgin acquired these objects whilst he was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. According to the British Museum’s website, he “successfully petitioned the authorities to be able to draw, measure and remove figures”. The British Museum also specify that on Elgin’s return to England, “his actions were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal”.
Despite this, according to Bruce Clark, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, the question of returning the marbles to Athens was raised even in Elgin’s own time. The British Museum continue to maintain that these artefacts were acquired legally, however on 17th May, UNESCO announced that further discussions would be held. This comes at a time when there is increasing pressure on institutions to repatriate objects acquired during periods of colonization. Last year, UNESCO called on the UK to “reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece.” However, the UK government have maintained that this is not a question for them, but for the British Museum. Lord Stephen Parkinson, the Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK, told Parliament in February that, “our prime minister emphasized the U.K.’s longstanding position that this is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, who legally own the sculptures. The British Museum operates independently of the Government, meaning that decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for its trustees. The Government fully supports the position taken by the trustees.”
Greece has disputed the UK government’s ambivalent stance. In a statement last month, Dr. Lina Medoni, Greece’s Culture Minister, said that the problem “is of an intergovernmental nature—in contrast to claims from the British side that it is a matter for the British Museum—and mainly that Greece has a valid and legal claim to demand the return of the sculptures to their place of birth.” Medoni has also suggested that a creative solution might be found, proposing intergovernmental loans and temporary exhibitions.
The issue of the Elgin Marbles has long since plagued repatriation talks, and it remains to be seen what might be resolved in the upcoming discussions.
One thought on “Formal talks planned over Parthenon Marbles, but forty years on will anything be resolved?”
The legalistic approach is not viable, as admitted multiple times even by high-level figures on the repatriationist side. The same Greek government has looked thoroughly into the possibility of mounting a legal case, spearheaded by top lawyers Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney, and then decided to drop it as too risky. Once the British Museum Act 1816 transferred the Elgin Collection to the Trustees of the British Museum those objects became private property and no government, even less so a foreign one, could force them to alienate it.
As was rightly pointed out by Prof. Chaniotis in a recent op-ed in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini (31/03/2022), the stubbornness of the Greek Government and the Acropolis Museum leadership in refusing to recognize the lawful possession of the Marbles by the British Museum is the greatest obstacle to any serious inter-museum cooperation proposals between the two cultural institutions, which is the only viable way of moving on. As he says, it’s either this, or we are going to be still talking about this in the year 2121.