Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has announced the Parthenon Marbles “belong here in the UK“. Despite reports suggesting the British Museum is close to agreeing a deal with Greece, Donelan insisted that the ancient sculptures should not be returned.
Made in the fifth century BCE, the marble sculptures once decorated the Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis. From 1801 to 1812, they were controversially removed by British diplomat and the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce. The British government purchased the sculptures in 1816 and placed them in the British Museum, which is now prevented by law from permanently returning them to Greece.
After years of debate, the museum’s chairman George Osborne is reportedly close to agreeing a deal. Some rumours have suggested the sculptures could head to Athens on loan in rotation, in return for classical objects that have never been seen outside Greece before.
But speaking to BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’, Donelan claimed that Osborne did not intend to permanently return the artefacts to Greece. The Secretary of State said it would “open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums.” She added: “I think his view on this has been misinterpreted and certainly portrayed wrongly… he’s not about to send them back, basically. That’s not his intention. He has no desire to do that. There’s also been this concept of a 100-year loan mooted as well, which is certainly not what he’s planning either.”
Donelan’s remarks have angered critics, who believed the negotiations were a sign of progress. A spokesperson for the Parthenon Project, a new lobbying group campaigning for their return, commented that “the government has always made clear that this is a matter for the British Museum but now that constructive talks between the British Museum and Greece have been confirmed, they seem to be changing their mind.” A YouGov poll commissioned by the Parthenon Project found that 53% of the British public supported the return, 20% said they had no strong opinion either way, and only 21% were opposed.
Although no comment has yet been made on Donelan’s statement, a spokesperson for the British Museum said last week that it was “actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and as we enter a new year constructive discussions are ongoing.”
But just this week senior Greek ministers announced the rejection of a prospective “long-term loan” of the Parthenon marbles. According to the Greek ministry of culture, they refused to acknowledge the British Museum was the legitimate owner of the sculptures “as they are the product of theft.”
Donelan’s comments are only the latest chapter in the long-running debate over the true home of the marbles, its resolution seemingly still a long way off.