After more than 200 years in the British Museum, the Parthenon marbles may soon be returning home to Greece, a move that would resolve one of the long-standing disputes in the global museum sector.
George Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum, met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London last week, with the fate of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon marble sculptures reportedly the only item on the agenda. Osborne and Mitsotakis then gave a speech at the London School of Economics in which Kyriakoss said that the permanent return of the marbles was “possible”.
Kyriakos said: “A win-win solution can be found leading to the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece while addressing concerns the British Museum may have.”
The negotiations were the latest in a series of secret talks that have taken place over a period of months between Osborne and the British Museum and ministers serving in the Mitsotakis government Ta Nea, the Athens newspaper that broke the news. sources told TaNea that the negotiations are now “at an advanced stage”.
If the deal is finalized, the marbles are expected to be returned to Greece in early 2023 and displayed alongside other artifacts from the Parthenon at the Acropolis Museum. Previously, the British Museum was in negotiations to loan the marbles to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens for a 10-year period.
The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, were taken from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 by the British diplomat and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Elgin brought the marbles to Britain with permission from the Ottoman authorities who then controlled Athens, before it was sold to the trustees of the British Museum in 1816.
The Greek government has since argued that this permit was not valid and that the marbles were taken without the consent of the Greek people. This was disputed by the British government; in March 2021 then Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the Parthenon marbles “were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the relevant laws of the time”.
Supporters of the marbles’ return to Greece argue that the British Museum does not have the right conditions to properly care for and preserve the marbles, which could be damaged by light, moisture and other environmental factors.
The British Museum has been plagued by construction problems in recent years and is soon set to undergo a major restoration. However, advocates of returning the marbles to Greece believe they will be better protected and preserved in the new and purpose-built Acropolis Museum in Athens.
For almost 40 years, the marbles have been the subject of a contentious dispute between the governments of the Greek and British peoples. The Greek government first made a formal request for the sculptures’ return in 1983.
If the marbles are returned to Athens, it would be something of a U-turn for the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is to address the broad issue of restitution at the British Museum’s annual Trustees’ Dinner on March 2nd.
While Osborne said that “long-term partnerships could be formed,” he seemed to deny the prospect of the Parthenon sculptures or other artefacts acquired by the British Museum during colonial rule being returned to their original places of origin.
Osborne said: “We hear the voices calling for redress. But the creation of this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling must not become the careless act of a single generation.”
In response to a request for comment, a British Museum spokesman said: “The British Museum has publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece and we will be discussing with everyone, including the Greek Government, how we can move this forward Chair of the Board of Trustees said last month: “We are acting within the law and will not dismantle our magnificent collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity. But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, And of course that includes Greece.”