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UK’s Former Culture Secretary Supports Return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece

The Parthenon ("Elgin") Marbles displayed in the British Museum, London.
UK’s Former Culture Secretary Supports Return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Credit: Txllxt TxllxT, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Ben Bradshaw, a former UK Secretary of Culture, has backed a campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, Greece.

The Classical Greek marble sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, have been housed in the British Museum since the early 19th century. Greece has insisted on their return since it gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire a few decades later.

“It’s only right that the sculptures should be viewed as one piece of art in the Acropolis Museum [in Greece],” Bradshaw said. He commented on the issue after joining the Parthenon Project, a group campaigning to repatriate the sculptures to Greece.

Another fragment of the Parthenon Marbles Credit: Public Domain

Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Marbles

In 1799, the Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, was dispatched to the Mediterranean to forge closer ties between Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire. There he served as the British ambassador to the Ottomans from 1799 to 1803 .

During his time as a diplomat, Elgin visited Athens and set his sights on the Parthenon. In 1801, he received a firman (royal mandate) from the Ottoman Sultan, which he interpreted as meaning he was free to remove objects.

At the time, Greeks were ruled over by the Ottoman Empire and could not consent to or contest the removal of culturally important artifacts.

All in all, Elgin is estimated to have taken roughly 247 feet of the frieze from the Parthenon, which he transported back to Great Britain.

Some of Elgin’s contemporaries decried his decision to take the Parthenon Marbles as amounting to theft. Lord Byron, the famous British poet, denounced Elgin as a “plunderer”, in a poem he wrote about the marbles after viewing them in London. Nevertheless, the marble sculptures arrived in England in 1812.

In 1816, the former ambassador sold them to the British government for £35,000, and they became one of the British Museum’s most important displays despite the controversy that remains today.

Parthenon marbles centaur Lapith fighting
Sculpture of a centaur battling a Lapith. Credit: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Demands for repatriation

The Parthenon Marbles are of monumental cultural and historical importance to Greece. The Parthenon itself, which sits atop the Acropolis overlooking Athens, has endured as a symbol of Greek achievement for thousands of years.

The fact that whole chunks of it have been kept away from their place of origin for over two centuries has been a longstanding cause of disagreement.

Supporters for returning the Parthenon Marbles like Bradshaw are hoping that the British Museum and UK government will strike a deal with Greece. The previous British Prime Minister, Liz Truss ruled out returning the Parthenon Marbles.

Yet the former UK Secretary of Culture stated, “I hope that as Rishi Sunak has family roots in a different culture he might be more sensitive to these issues and he won’t stand in the way of their return.”

Bradshaw is also not the only prominent British figure who has called for the marble sculptures to be returned to Athens. Stephen Fry, best known for his writing and on-screen performances, has also previously said: “The Marbles should absolutely be returned to Greece.”

Last year, a YouGov poll found that the majority of British adults felt the Parthenon Marbles should be kept in Greece. 59% of respondents answered that the sculptures should be returned to Athens, while only 18% was in favor of them remaining in the UK.

Earlier this year, the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Italy, returned a fragment of the Parthenon housed in their museum. That gesture has since raised hopes that the British Museum might  consider returning sections of the ancient temple kept in London as well.

Presently however, it does not have plans to return the artefacts to Greece.

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