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UK Isolated at UNESCO Over the Parthenon Marbles – Report

UK Unesco Parthenon Marbles
The UK was completely isolated at a recent UNESCO meeting on the Parthenon Marbles. Public Domain

The UK was completely isolated at a recent UNESCO meeting on the fate of the Parthenon Marbles, the influential The Art Newspaper reported on Wednesday.

According to the report, the British delegation at an intergovernmental meeting in Paris has dismissed its own government’s initiative to discuss the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles with the Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni.

Speaking to international delegates assembled in Paris for the latest session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) last week, a senior official at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said that the government does not have the authority to discuss the fate of the ancient sculptures.

Helen Whitehouse, the deputy director of museums and cultural property at DCMS, told delegates that the sculptures are legally owned by the trustees of the British Museum, implying that all decisions about their future are their responsibility.

“It is not for the UK government to enter into discussions on the future of the Parthenon sculptures with the Greek government,” she said.

UK “struggling to articulate coherent policy” on Parthenon Marbles

The revelation that British officials will soon meet with Mendoni to discuss Greece’s claim for the sculptures’ restitution was made by UNESCO, on the eve of its ICPRCP meeting.

As Greek Reporter reported on May 18th, ICPRCP sent two letters to the United Kingdom and Greece in March 2022 requesting information and proposing to facilitate dialogue. The United Kingdom and Greece responded on April 8, 2022 and April 18, 2022, respectively.

The UK had suggested organizing a meeting, which they hoped would be well-received by Greek authorities, between Mendoni, and Lord Parkinson, the minister of the United Kingdom’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The Art Newspaper notes that the divergence of the British delegation from the official response shows that Britain is struggling to articulate a coherent policy on the Parthenon Marbles in the face of increasing pressure for restitution.

It adds that numerous delegates pointed out that Whitehouse failed to explain that it is precisely the British government that would need to introduce the necessary legislation to allow for the sculptures’ return to Greece. For its part, the British Museum says it is unable to return the Parthenon sculptures without a new law.

UK in “game of ping pong” on the Parthenon Marbles

Expressing frustration at this seemingly endless passing of responsibility between The British Museum and the UK government, the Venezuelan delegate called on Britain to stop this “game of ping pong.”

“Why won’t the UK change the law?” the Greek delegation asked. The British declined to answer, according to The Art Newspaper report.

Eighteen other countries that intervened in the discussion all voiced support for the Greek claim. None backed Britain, the paper says.

The Indian delegate noted that the longstanding unfulfilled claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is “a testimony to all that is unjust and unfair in the issue at hand” and called for “the sculptures’ return to their rightful place in Greece at the earliest opportunity.”

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