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Former UK Culture Minister Says Parthenon Marbles Should be Returned

Parthenon Marbles
The Parthenon Marbles, in the Duvet gallery of the British Museum. Credit: Joy of Museums/ Wikimedia Commons

Greece’s iconic Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece, a former UK culture minister told the press in a podcast on Wednesday.

During the interview, with hosts Charlotte Burns and Allan Schwartzman, Ed Vaizey gave his support to restoring the Marbles to their rightful home while he summarized the  complex arguments that have swirled around their ownership for centuries.

The former UK Culture Minister said that there has been a sea change in the issue over the years, admitting that the “debate has really moved on. I think I would support the return of the (Parthenon} marbles now.”

Vaizey, who served as Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries under David Cameron for six years, is a member of the House of Lords.

The former culture and technology minister’s comments have reopened the debate as to the legality of holding the Marbles, which were chipped away from the facade of the Parthenon while Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

The sculptures, created in the fifth century by Greece’s master sculptor Phidias, have been housed at the British Museum since the early 19th century. However, even in those times, hardly known for their political correctness, the legality of transporting the sculptures away from Greece and taking ownership of them was hotly debated in Parliament.

Vaizey spoke of his change of heart when featured in an episode of the “Hope & Dread” podcast which was broadcast yesterday. He stated that the “debate has really moved on. I think I would support the return of the (Parthenon) marbles now. Having said that, it is extremely hard to know where to draw the line.”

The sculptures have been displayed in the windowless Duvet Gallery in the British Museum since 1817. In 1801, the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin, who at the time was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had paid workmen to chip away the sculptures. They then took a circuitous route to Britain, once even becoming shipwrecked off a small Greek island.

Divers were then employed to rescue the statues from the depths; the priceless Marbles were then secured into the hold of a new vessel and taken to London.

Vaizey admitted that the debate surrounding the legality of the holding of the Marbles today is complex, touching on the concept of a “domino effect” in which all the other major museums across the world are pressured to return their most iconic displays to their nations of provenance.

“The first argument is that the Marbles sit in an institution that is a world museum visited by millions of people from all over the world who can benefit from seeing the Marbles in a way they perhaps couldn’t if they were based in Athens,” he explains in the podcast.

“If you give the Marbles back, at what point do you stop?” Vaizey asks the interviewers rhetorically.

Although Vaizey admits that the British Museum does hold paperwork purportedly allowing the Marbles to be taken out of Greece, it was signed by the Ottoman overlord at the time, throwing the issue of legal ownership into question.

The former Culture Minister then states “It is so obvious to me that they are so woven into Greek identity, it would be a wonderful thing if they could be returned.”

The trustees of the British Museum, who are technically the custodians of the Marbles, have never budged in their refusal to admit that there is any legal crack in their case. The Art Newspaper reports that they continue to maintain that Elgin acted with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities then in power in Athens and London.

“The sculptures on display in London convey huge public benefit as part of the museum’s worldwide collection,” the Trustees state, adding that Greece has never asked them to loan the sculptures; it has asked “only for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures in its care to Athens.”

A growing chorus of voices appear to be adding to a number of actions taken in recent years slanting toward a return of the Marbles. Documents which were recently declassified indicate that indeed the British Museum could return not only the Marbles, but also other antiquities and art that are of tremendous importance to their nations of origin.

A 1963 Act of Parliament which calls for the museum to not deaccession items from its collection, nevertheless makes exceptions in certain situations, including if the objects are duplicates. Back in 1991, the UK ambassador to Athens spoke strongly about the issue, stating that the British Museum should not “hide behind” this piece of legislation when speaking about the possible return of the Parthenon Marbles.

It also recently came to light that philhellene PM Boris Johnson argued in an article he wrote while a student in 1986 that the taking of the Marbles was an injustice which should never have happened and that they should be returned. Johnson’s piece had been published when he was reading Classics as a student at Oxford University.

“The Elgin marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, ‘the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea,’” he wrote in the article published in Debate, once the official magazine of the Oxford Union Society.

Johnson’s words were picked up quickly by the Greek press.

The Conservative PM also famously recited a chapter from the Iliad — in Ancient Greek — during an interview recently.

Last month, after meeting with visiting Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis at Downing Street, Johnson reiterated the official line that the ownership of the Marbles rests solely with the Trustees of the British Museum.

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