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The Parthenon Sculptures Remain Hostage to Politics

Opinion Piece

By Peter Mumford

Top: Fragments from the Parthenon Frieze displayed in the British Museum. Bottom: Corresponding fragments displayed in the Acropolis Museum, with plaster cast replicas. When viewed side by side, the impression is one of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one of significant cultural and political importance. Photos by Peter Mumford, 2023.

The outcome of Greece’s elections has paved the way for the continuation of negotiations about the fate of the Parthenon Sculptures, but a permanent resolution to this issue remains unlikely.

The Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum in central Athens is visually striking. Several storeys taller than the surrounding buildings, its walls are entirely made of glass, allowing visitors to look directly out at the Parthenon itself, standing parallel to the gallery atop the Acropolis hill. The museum was built to house artefacts from the Acropolis; even the arrangement of the sculptures in the gallery replicates their former location on the Parthenon. But even a casual viewer would notice the gaps where white plaster casts of sculptures have replaced the original marble; these signify sculptures from the Parthenon that currently reside in other museums across Europe. Most are in the British Museum, which houses around half of the Parthenon’s total surviving sculptures. The status of this particular collection, known as the ‘Parthenon Sculptures’ or the ‘Elgin Marbles’, has been and remains a subject of considerable controversy in both Greece and the UK.

As Greek voters went to the polls earlier this year to hand Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy party a second term in office, the Parthenon Sculptures would not likely have been high on voters’ agendas. Yet the outcome of the election threatened to impact – and perhaps jeopardise – the progress of Greece’s ongoing negotiations with the British Museum. Although the dispute concerns museum collections, it is also deeply political and will likely continue to remain hostage to political developments in both countries for the foreseeable future.

The Parthenon Sculptures, a collection of 5th-century BC statues, sections of the Parthenon frieze and panels (metopes), were removed from the Acropolis in the early 19th century and transported to Britain by the Earl of Elgin, who claimed that he had the permission of the Ottoman authorities to do so. Although a parliamentary inquiry in 1816 concluded that Elgin had acted legally, his claims have been disputed - even at the time he was accused of looting by critics, including the famous poet Lord Byron. Some of the sculpture fragments were lying on the ground when removed by Elgin, but many were hacked and sawn off the main Parthenon structure, causing damage to the Parthenon itself. The artefacts were later transferred to the ownership of the British Museum, where they remain to this day as one of its best-known exhibits.

Greece does not recognise Elgin’s acquisition of the sculptures or the British Museum’s possession of them as lawful and has spent decades campaigning for repatriation; it has even taken the matter to UNESCO. After the British Museum and the UK government declined an offer of mediation, UNESCO ruled in favour of Greece in 2021, stating that “the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely on the United Kingdom Government”.

Those favouring the return of the sculptures argue that Elgin obtained them illegally and unethically, that they are significant to Greece, and that they belong with the other surviving Parthenon sculptures in the Acropolis Museum. Counter-arguments focus on both the legality of Elgin’s actions and the fact that this might set a precedent that could undermine the collections of museums in the UK and around the world. In January, the former UK Culture Secretary argued that returning the sculptures would be “dangerous” and would “open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums”. Yet despite the presence of numerous classical Greek artefacts in Britain’s museums, the Greek government is only seeking the return of those taken by Elgin from the Parthenon.

The longstanding debate over the Parthenon Sculptures was reignited by reports earlier this year that the Greek government and the British Museum had been holding negotiations over the sculptures’ fate and that they seemed to be making progress. The British Museum’s website describes “constructive discussions” with Greece over a “Parthenon partnership”. George Osborne, the current chair of the British Museum, clarified that the deal could involve loaning some of the sculptures to Athens in exchange for other Greek artefacts that would be displayed temporarily in the UK. Although Mitsotakis stated that he would not be prepared to agree to a loan that would implicitly recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, he also claimed that both sides were “trying to explore a possible win-win proposition” that would be mutually beneficial and provide an “innovative” solution. The precise terms of the discussions remain unclear, and it seems unlikely that Greece would be willing to agree to only a temporary reacquisition of the sculptures.

In the aftermath of his electoral victory, Mitsotakis will likely deliver on his promise to resume negotiations with the British Museum and “build upon the progress that we have made”. He had postponed these talks in advance of the elections, publicly toughening his stance on repatriation, perhaps to reflect the more hard-line positions taken by his political opponents.

But while there may now be political will in the Greek government to move forward, the same cannot be said for their British counterparts. Even if the British Museum were to agree terms with Greece, it is legally prohibited from returning items permanently by a law that the current government said will not change. Rishi Sunak claimed in March that the Parthenon Sculptures are a “huge asset” to the UK and there were “no plans” to change the law to allow their return to Greece. The UK is also heading for a general election next year, and given the Conservatives’ current tendency to take a tough line on ‘culture warissues, it seems unlikely that Sunak will risk expending political capital to enable the repatriation of the sculptures.

On the other hand, British public opinion seems to favour the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. A recent YouGov survey found that 64% of the 2300 respondents supported returning the sculptures to Greece (as part of a reciprocal loan agreement), an increase from the 59% who backed repatriation in a similar 2021 poll. The remainder of the respondents were evenly divided between being opposed and undecided. Leading newspapers, including The Times and The Guardian, also support the return of the sculptures. The Labour Party, who are currently significantly ahead in the polls for the next election, have not yet declared an official position. However, some Labour politicians have expressed support for the British Museum’s negotiations with Greece. It is likely that they will be more open to repatriation than the current Conservative government, especially if the British Museum manages to agree terms with Greece and puts pressure on the government to follow suit.

The ultimate fate of the Parthenon Sculptures will depend on political will and developments in both Greece and the UK. Despite Mitsotakis’ recent victory, with the UK heading for a general election next year and the British government currently opposed to repatriation, any lasting resolution to this dispute remains far off. The progress in negotiations this year offers encouragement for the future, but for the time being, the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum’s gallery will remain.


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