The Parthenon Marbles housed in the British Museum continue to occupy the forefront of an ongoing debate about the repatriation of art. After reports of a series of “secret” meetings over the sculptures, the UK government confirmed that there would be no changes to the law to facilitate their return to Greece.
Made between 447 and 432 B.C. Under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias and his assistants, marbles from the British Museum’s collection are displayed in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery, and once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. They consist of 15 metopes (sculpted relief panels), 17 pediment figures and 247 feet of the original frieze. The sculptures depict impressive scenes of battles and festive processions, as well as reclining gods.
In total, the British Museum’s collection makes up half of the surviving Parthenon sculptures.
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On Saturday, the Greek newspaper Ta Nea revealed that since November 2021, British Museum Chairman George Osborne has had a series of “secret” talks about returning the marbles with senior Greek government officials, including the prime minister. Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The last meeting between Mitsotakis and Osborne was last week and experts say the negotiations are at an “advanced stage”.
Greece has long maintained that the marbles were stolen and has campaigned for their repatriation. On the other hand, the British Museum, together with the UK government, has defended its right to own and display them.
At issue are the actions of Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. Having obtained a permit, Elgin removed the sculptures, then 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. Since then, arguments against the legality of Elgin’s actions have focused on the original permission, that is, 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 in Athens’ purpose-built Acropolis Museum seems 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 both parties. “I feel the urge,” added Mitsotakis.
A spokesman for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that while the trustees are free to talk to whomever they want, the UK government “has no plans to change the law, which prevents the removal of items from the collection. of the British Museum, except in 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 unfit for retention in the Museum’s collections and can be removed without prejudice to the interests of students.”
The British Museum responded to the reports in a statement on Monday.
“We are looking for new long-term positive partnerships with countries and communities around the world and that of course includes Greece,” he said.
The Museum still intends to operate within the law, explaining that it would not dismantle its collection “as 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 marbles come back [to Athens] They won’t come back permanently.”