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British Museum Gives False Hope For Return of Parthenon Marbles

parthenon marbles british museum
Greece has repeatedly called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The recent suggestion that the British Museum could return the Parthenon Marbles is a false hope, not a promise.

By George Vardas

George Osborne, the new Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, has just written an op-ed piece in The Times declaring that the museum is open to lending its artifacts to “anywhere who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return … including to Greece.”

But what exactly does he mean? Has the British Museum had a change of heart after decades of stonewalling on the question of the Parthenon Marbles?

The initial response in the Greek media was that the British Museum is now prepared to lend what it calls the Elgin Collection of Parthenon Sculptures to Greece in the wake of the Greek Prime Minister’s recent and well-publicized meeting with Boris Johnson in London when he renewed Greece’s request for the reunification of the sculptures.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis had even raised the prospect of Greece reciprocating, by means of recurring long-term loans of rare Classical Greek artifacts to fill the Duveen Gallery.

However, the concept of a “loan” has also offended some commentators, who argue that the sculptures were looted by Lord Elgin and it is therefore not possible for the British Museum to lend something which it does not legally own.

Do the Parthenon Marbles belong to Greece, or to everyone?

The inconvenient truth is that nothing has really changed. The British Museum protests that it itself is not the product of the British Empire (even though it was established in 1753), but the sweet fruit of the Age of Enlightenment.

In Osborne’s words, the British Museum remains one of the very few places on earth where you can see the great civilizations of the world side by side. And in a “fragmenting society” the museum’s collections remind us of all that we share and of how our histories and cultures are all connected.

In other words, as far as the British are concerned, the Parthenon Sculptures are part of our “common humanity” and they will not be moving. To think otherwise is to ignore the lessons of history.

For a start, the British Museum’s own website is quite clear.

The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world and the Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. Indeed, according to the Trustees, they are part of “the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries”.

And as for a loan, the museum’s position is clear. The Trustees will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned on the “simple precondition” that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the object.

They give as an example the temporary loan of the pedimental sculpture of the River God Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2014.

It should be recalled that in 2002 the British Museum and various other major institutions, including the Hermitage, had issued a self-serving declaration on the “importance and value of universal museums,” decrying the alleged threat to the integrity of their collections posed by demands for the restitution of objects to their countries of origin.

Loaning the sculptures to Greece

In other words, creating the concept of this supposed “loan” was nothing more than a provocative act by the British Museum to remind the Greeks that it could do whatever it liked regarding the Parthenon Sculptures.

The British Museum has in the past dismissed out of hand the idea of lending, let alone transferring, any of the sculptures to Greece.

In 2002, Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos proposed that when the Parthenon sculptures are returned, the Greek government would ensure that the British Museum would always host rare and even newly-discovered Greek antiquities by way of reciprocal and recurring loans in a spirit of cultural compromise and curatorial co-operation.

The response to this was brutal.

The Chairman of the British Museum Trustees reiterated that there is a “prima facie presumption against the lending of key objects in the Museum’s collection” and in this case the Parthenon sculptures are among a “group of key objects, indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose.”

The Chairman added that he could not envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan — permanent or temporary — of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collections.

That mantra has been consistently applied. The current director of the British Museum, Dr. Hartwig Fischer, in early 2021 declared that the while the museum does engage in long-term loans, there are no “indefinite loans,” and in any event, as the Parthenon Marbles belong to the trustees of the British Museum, they will not permanently return to Greece; he ruled out the possibility of an “indefinite lending.”

And yet there was a sense of euphoria when Mitsotakis recently met Johnson at 10 Downing Street. The Greek PM was emphatic that it was time to settle this long-standing dispute, particularly when the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee that met in late September 2021 had issued a sternly-worded decision critical of the UK Government’s stance, urging that it enter into a bona fide dialogue with the Greeks over their legitimate claim.

UNESCO had been especially critical of the failure of successive British governments to confront the issue, settling instead for hiding behind the curatorial veil of the British Museum Trustees.

Parthenon Marbles are meant to be in Greece

In an open letter published in the Daily Mail, Mitsotakis declared: (The Acropolis Museum) is the right place, the best place, and the only place in which it is possible to appreciate the cultural and historical importance of these sculptures in situ.

And it is the beauty of precisely this alignment that makes the physical separation between the sculptures in London and the main collection in Athens such a gaping void. A void that is impossible to ignore.

Not surprisingly, Boris Johnson replied that the British Museum operates independently of the government and that any question about the location for the Parthenon sculptures is a matter for the Trustees.

It is a variation on a familiar theme that goes to the core of the British Museum’s defense of the marbles. It is a refrain that is repeated ad infinitum. The Conservative UK Government’s avowed policy in response to the anti-colonialism movement is “retain and explain,” but, if that fails, then prevaricate and obfuscate.

So when you unpack George Osborne’s piece in The Times, what is left? One clue can be found in what I term the “tale of two Tweets.”

Just last week, the new UK Ambassador to Greece, Matthew Lodge (who incidentally has described Osborne’s article as a “thoughtful piece”), met Greek Culture Minister Dr. Lina Mendoni, in Athens, and discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

Except you would not know that if you read the Tweet issued by the UK Embassy, which does not mention the Parthenon Marbles, when compared with the Tweet (and accompanying media release) from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, which do.

 

I am afraid the British Museum has no intention whatsoever of lending the Parthenon Marbles in its entirety to the Greeks, whether on a short-term basis or for eternity.

At most, it may offer several fragments of solitary pieces by way of a short-term loan on condition that the Greeks expressly acknowledge that legal ownership vests in the British Museum and in the knowledge that no Greek government would make such a concession.

As the eminent arts lawyer Alexander Herman describes it in his recently-published book on Restitution, the case of the Parthenon Marbles to this point demonstrates that an “all-or-nothing approach” rarely succeeds.

Unfortunately, the British Museum is not interested in “halfway solutions” or even mediation; therefore this cultural deadlock is destined to continue unless the Greek government delivers on its promise to maintain the pressure at an intergovernmental level that goes to the core of Anglo-Hellenic bilateral relations.

The reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, which once adorned Greece’s pre-eminent monument as artifacts of unparalleled beauty and which constitute the keys to Greece’s ancient history, should not be the subject of historical revisionism and imperial obfuscation by the British Museum.

Greece has the right to interpret its own glorious past. That is why, George Osborne, it is right to return the Parthenon Marbles now.

George Vardas
Co-Vice President, Australian Parthenon Committee
Co-Founder, The Acropolis Research Group

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