The Greek government and the British Museum are in talks about the possibility of returning the Parthenon Marbles (also called Elgin Marbles) to Greece. These are a series of sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon, a mythical temple of the Acropolis of Athens built between 447BC and 432BC, and are now hosted in the UK museum. Greece has been asking for the return of these for a long time, but the British Museum had been reluctant.
George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in London last week, with the fate of the 2,500-year-old sculptures on the agenda. Osborne and Kyriakos gave a speech at the London School of Economics, during which the Prime Minister said the return of the monument was “possible.”
The negotiations were the latest in a series of secret discussions that have happened over a period of months between Osborne and the British Museum, according to Ta Nea, the Greek newspaper which broke the news. If the deal is finalized, the marbles could be returned to Greece by 2023 and will be displayed in the Acropolis Museum — but this is far from a done deal.
Artifacts in the British Museum can’t be deaccessioned, a process necessary in order to transfer full ownership, according to British law. The UK government has said it has no plans to change the law, so the two sides in the conflict are exploring other alternatives, such as an agreement for the two museums to share temporarily.
The impressive marbles
The Parthenon Marbles were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by the British diplomat and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, in 1801. Elgin sent the marbles to the UK with the permission of the Ottoman authorities, who controlled Athens back then, before being sold to the trustees of the British Museum in 1816.
But the Greek government argues that this permission wasn’t valid and that the marbles were taken to the UK without the consent of the Greek people. This was disputed by the British government. In 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the marbles were “legally acquired” by Elgin during the laws applicable back then — something which Greek officials have contested.
The British Museum has experienced many construction issues in recent years and is due to undergo a significant restoration. This is used as an argument by the supporters of the marbles’ return to Greece, claiming the museum doesn’t have the proper conditions. Instead, they would be better protected and preserved in the Acropolis Museum.
The British Museum issued a statement last week saying it wanted “a new Parthenon partnership with Greece” and was prepared to talk to Athens about that. “[But] we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection, as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” it stressed.
The marbles in the British Museum include sculptures depicting the birth of the goddess Athena, the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Metis. According to the myth, Zeus was afraid Athena would become more powerful than him, so he swallowed the pregnant Metis. But this didn’t stop the pregnancy, and the goddess Athena was born.