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UNESCO Urges Return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece

Parthenon marbles
The Parthenon Marbles, housed in the British Museum, are the subject of an effort by the UN for them to be turned over to the nation of Greece. Credit: Paul Hudson/Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has made a momentous decision to urge the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum, according to a statement from Greece’s Culture Minister on Thursday.

Culture Minister Lina Mendoni stated “Together with the recommendation that was issued – referring to the poor conditions of exposure that the sculptures are kept in at the British Museum – Greece also achieved a decision from the Intergovernmental Committee that pertains specifically to the return of the Parthenon sculptures.”

Her remarks come one day after the 22nd session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) came to a conclusion in Paris.

Mendoni noted that “The committee urgently calls on the United Kingdom to review is position and enter into a discussion with Greece, recognizing that the issue is of an intergovernmental nature – in contrast to claims from the British side that it is a matter for the British Museum – and mainly that Greece has a valid and legal claim to demand the return of the sculptures to their place of birth.”

Marking what many across Greece hope is a turning point in the longstanding disagreement regarding the Parthenon Marbles, which were chipped off the facade of the iconic building before they were taken to Great Britain, Mendoni noted that today’s committee action constitutes a “particularly significant development.”

Parthenon Marbles debate part of larger “de-colonialization” effort

Greece’s ongoing campaign to return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home atop the Acropolis takes place in recent times as museums around the world are attempting to “de-colonialize” their collections, reassessing whether or not the priceless antiquities that come from other nations should be displayed in faraway institutions.

Additionally, reports of water leakage in the windowless room in which the Marbles are displayed has posed another problem, although the British Museum insists that the issue has been ameliorated.

The looting of the Parthenon marbles was committed by Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin and a Scottish nobleman, who served as Great Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1801-1805.

Over the decades, there have been countless petitions by citizens, politicians, and celebrities from around the world to return the marble sculptures to their rightful home, atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

There have even been offers to trade antiquities from Greece to the UK in hopes that the British Museum might consider “loaning” them back to Greece. However, the British Museum has declined all options and offers.

The British Museum claims that Lord Elgin didn’t “steal” the Parthenon Marbles. Instead, the museum insists that Elgin took them with the complete knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities. During the time when Lord Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Athens was under its rule.

Of the items that Lord Elgin took from atop the Acropolis, it is estimated that he looted some 247 feet of frieze from the Parthenon. Furthermore, it is believed that Elgin took around half of what was still standing of the Parthenon at that time.

Elgin shipped his loot to England and in 1816 he sold the marble statues for £35,000 — nowhere near its estimated market value; while to Greece, they are a priceless piece of the country’s culture.

Eventually, they were acquired by the British Museum in London. However, even back in the early 1800s, the legitimacy over “ownership” of the marbles was controversial. Only after a Parliamentary Select Committee debated the legality of Elgin’s ownership, where Elgin argued that the sculptures would be better cared for in Britain than in Greece, did the museum finally take possession of the Parthenon antiquities.

The marble sculptures date back over 2,500 years and were first created in honor of the Greek goddess, Athena.


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