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When Boris Johnson Admitted Removing Parthenon Marbles Was Wrong

Parthenon Marbles
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently suggested a trade to entice Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Now a letter has come to light in which Boris Johnson, the then-mayor of London, admitted that in a perfect world they would never have been taken. Credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A letter from 2012 written by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to a local Greek politician, came to light on Tuesday, revealing Johnson’s admission that the Parthenon Marbles should never have been removed from Athens.

Not even a week has passed since a meeting between the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, in London. During the meeting, Mitsotakis urged Johnson to return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home in Athens.

Johnson’s response was an emphatic “no,” and when he spoke with Ta Nea newspaper he went so far as to suggest that the marbles had been legally acquired at the time they were taken by Lord Elgin.

The Guardian, however, published a letter today that contradicts Johnson’s statements somewhat. The letter is Johnson’s response from when he was Mayor of London to George Hinos, who was president of the New Democracy party for the region of Ilia at the time of the correspondence.

The region of Ilia is home to Ancient Olympia, the archaeological site where the Olympic Games began thousands of years ago and where the Olympic flame continues to be ignited at the start of every Olympic season.

Johnson Admits Parthenon Marbles Should Never Have Been Taken

The letter exchange between Johnson and Hinos occurred a few months before the Olympic Flame was to be lit and sent to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, an especially symbolic timing.

Hinos, in his capacity as a leader in the region and in advance of the lighting ceremony, implored that the Parthenon marbles be returned to their rightful home.

Letter from Boris Johnson about the Parthenon Marbles. Credit: Helena Smith, The Guardian

In Johnson’s written response, unlike his stance in 2021, he recognized that the grievance had merit: “This is a matter on which I have reflected deeply over many years. In an ideal world it is of course true that the Parthenon marbles would never have been removed from the Acropolis and it would now be possible to view them in situ.”

One thing remains unchanged between Johnson’s 2021 and 2012 position on the matter. The British PM maintains his position to defend the interests of London above all else.

In his response to Hinos, Johnson concluded, “Much as I sympathize with the case for restitution to Athens, I feel that on balance I must defend the interests of London.”

The future of the Parthenon Marbles remains open, despite the many forces calling for their return to the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

In September of 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) advocated for the return of the Parthenon Marbles; this is the first time that an international organization of this stature has made such a claim.

It is not only institutions that have shifted their mindset on the matter of the return of the Acropolis Marbles, though.

The international research data and analytics group YouGov, released a poll on November 23, where over 7,000 Britons were asked where the sculptures belong; 59% of those surveyed said they belong in Greece, while 22% claimed to not know and only 18% thought they should remain in the British Museum.

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