On the eve of UNESCO negotiations over the ownership of the Parthenon marbles between Greece and the United Kingdom, the president of the British Museum suggested he would be open to sharing.
The president of the British Museum in London has declared himself open to an agreement to share the Parthenon marbles with Greece.
The Parthenon Marbles are a highly controversial part of the British Museum’s collection.
Built in the 5th century BCE as part of the Acropolis of Athens, the sculptures were removed and transported to Britain in the early 1800s, under the orders of the 7th Earl of Elgin, a British diplomat and nobleman.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Greece has officially requested the return of the 75-meter-long frieze.
The British Museum has always maintained that the sculptures were legally acquired. Earlier in 2022, the deputy director of the British Museum, Dr. Jonathan Williams, argued that “much of the frieze was actually removed from the rubble around the Parthenon” and was not sawed off the building.
Greece claims Elgin “looted” the sculptures while the country was under Ottoman occupation.
The British government has also always maintained that it has no say in whether or not the sculptures are returned, as they belong to the private museum.
Last month, UNESCO announced it would facilitate talks between the two countries to discuss the return of the marbles.
Change of tone for the museum
Today, the chairman of the British Museum and former chancellor of the United Kingdom, George Osborne, said that “a deal must be reached in which we can tell both stories in Athens and in London if we both tackle this issue without too many preconditions, without lots of red lines.
“Sensible people could organize something that would make the most of the Parthenon marbles, but if either side says there is nothing to be done, then there will be no deal,” he said.
Asked if some of the marbles could be returned to Greece for a period before returning to London, Osborne replied that “that sort of arrangement would be possible”. He stressed, however, that he could not speak for the administrators.
The British Museum also released a statement showing a potential change from its long-standing policy.
“The museum is always willing to consider requests to borrow objects from the collection,” the statement said, noting that the museum lends between 4,000 and 5,000 objects each year.
“These magnificent works of art are enjoyed by a global community and we believe public access should be at the heart of these conversations; too often discussions are limited to a legalistic and adversarial context instead of focusing on how to share the sculptures with a wider world…deepening public access, creating new ways and opportunities for collections are shared and understood throughout the world, remain at the heart of the approach. what the British Museum seeks to achieve,” he continues.
A changing perspective on antiques
British public opinion is increasingly in favor of repatriation: 59 percent of respondents believe that the marbles taken by Lord Elgin belong to Greece, according to the latest survey by the British Yougov institute, compared to 37 percent in 2014.
More generally, pressure is increasing on European cultural institutions to return objects looted during the colonial era.
Last year Cambridge University officially returned to Nigeria a bronze rooster sculpture looted a century ago, the first time this has happened in the UK.
The British Museum, which has the largest collection of bronzes in the world, has so far refused to follow suit.
Discussing the issue with Euronews during the announcement of the UNESCO talks, Evangelos Kyriakidis, director of the Heritage Management Organisation, highlighted the importance of the Parthenon marbles for Greek culture.
“It’s sovereignty. Having a Greek national symbol in a museum called the British Museum is totally wrong. It’s like the crown jewels are in Greece,” he said.