As Europe returns artefacts, Britain remains silent on the Parthenon marbles

LONDON – In 1984 Neil Kinnock, then leader of the UK opposition Labor Party, did something few politicians here have dared: he pledged to return the Parthenon marbles.

These classic sculptures, often referred to as the Elgin Marbles after the British aristocrat who removed them from the Parthenon in the early 1800s and brought them to London, were “a moral issue,” Kinnock told reporters at the meeting. ‘a visit to Athens. “The Parthenon without the beads is like a smile with a missing tooth,” he said.

Kinnock’s comments made the headlines at the time, but when he returned to London he found that few in his party shared his views, let alone conservative members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. He did not push the idea.

Most of his successors, including Tony Blair, insisted that the marbles should remain in place at the British Museum, as one of its highlights.

Last week, the sculptures returned to public view after an extended closure of the museum’s Greek galleries due to the coronavirus pandemic and maintenance work. They have reappeared as activists across Europe clamor for rectification of perceived historical injustices, but the idea of ​​returning the marbles to Athens seems to have as little political support here as it did in Kinnock’s day.

The official position of the British government is that it is not responsible for the fate of the marbles: this, he says, falls to the trustees of the British Museum, a group largely appointed by the Prime Minister who has repeatedly said that the sculptures were an integral part of the museum’s mission. mission to tell the story of the world.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson – an Oxford Classics graduate who likes to quote ancient Greek – has said for years that the marbles belong to London. In 2012, while mayor of London, he wrote to a Greek official claiming that he “had thought deeply for many years” about the sculptures and, even though he sympathized with the Greek case, it would be “a grave and irremediable loss” if they left the British Museum.

When Johnson met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last month, he reiterated the government’s position that anything to do with marbles was a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, not for him.

Throughout 2021, as other European governments announced restitution policies and returned items, Britain’s responsibility on the logs seemed increasingly out of place.

Yet in Britain, a former colonial and trading power whose museums are full of treasures from its former possessions, restitution is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government nor the opposition Labor Party has issued a policy statement on the matter, and there has been no debate on the matter in parliament.

Current and former UK lawmakers have said there are a host of reasons for the lack of action. Kinnock, 79, said in an email that the government, and much of the UK public, tended to “hold onto (or even yearn for) a real or imagined past.”

Returning artifacts would be considered “awake,” Kinnock added, and the government treats it “like vampires treat sunlight.”

John Hayes, Conservative Party lawmaker and President of an influential right-wing group in parliament called Common Sense, said Belgium, France and Germany were returning items to their former colonies to improve relations, but Britain had much better relations with its former imperial possessions.

By doing nothing on restitution, British lawmakers were “more sane” than their mainland counterparts, he said, adding that the belief that all items should be returned to their country of origin was “an absurd position. “, without logical end.

Traditionally, the British government does not interfere in the day-to-day management of the museums it funds. But the current government has recently lobbied to shape its policies. Last year Oliver Dowden, the country’s then Minister of Culture, wrote to museum officials, telling them to “conserve and explain” disputed monuments, such as statues of slave owners, rather than to remove them from sight.

Dowden has also made his point of view on restitution clear, telling a british tv channel in September that the Benin bronzes in the British Museum “reside” in the collection.

Campaigners say the government could take action on the Parthenon Marbles if it wished. Artemis Papathanassiou, a member of a Greek Ministry of Culture committee working to reunify the Parthenon Marbles, said that since the UK government sets the rules for large museums and often appoints their trustees, it should get involved. “They just don’t want to take responsibility,” she said.

In September, a UNESCO committee on the return of disputed artefacts declared that the marble dispute “is intergovernmental in nature and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures falls squarely on the UK government. “.

Yet lawmakers insist that the matter is left to them, even though, under the 1963 law governing the British Museum, trustees can only remove items from the collection if they are “unsuitable for safekeeping” and “can be disposed of without harming the interests of students”.

Samantha Knights, a lawyer working on restitution cases, said the law was so vague it potentially gave trustees some leeway. When Elgin took the Marbles, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire; he had a permit to excavate the Parthenon, although it was not clear if he had permission to remove anything. Knights said the administrators “may decide that due to the history of how the Parthenon marbles were acquired and the Greek government’s very powerful arguments for their return, they are now” unfit to be kept “. , she said. .

“But whether the directors would be willing to come to that conclusion is another question,” added Knights.

The administrators of the British Museum do not seem in the mood to give back.

As of September, the board has been chaired by George Osborne, a former Tory lawmaker who served as Britain’s chief financial officer from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article, but in an opinion piece in The Times of London earlier this month, he said the museum was “open to loan our artifacts to anyone who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return”, including Greece. The Greek government has previously rejected offers to borrow the Parthenon marbles, awaiting their final return.

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, also declined to be interviewed, but said in an emailed statement that the marbles help visitors “get a glimpse of the cultures of the world and how they are made. interconnect over time “. The museum website explains that the sculptures “convey influences between the Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations”, and argues that they are best presented in this context.

Janet Suzman, actress and chair of the UK Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said she hopes the change in attitudes around the world about the ownership of African artifacts will influence opinions about the marbles. In November, a poll by YouGov, a polling organization, said 59 percent of the British public believes that the marbles belong to Greece.

But Osborne’s appointment had made her “much less optimistic” about the cause, Suzman said. “No one is named in the British Museum unless you swear at your mother’s grave that you won’t return anything,” she said.

Kinnock, the former Labor leader, said he felt “rather desperate” when considering the chances of the marbles being returned. Other European governments had their own reasons for returning disputed items, he said: Empire.

Change in Britain “will only come with a different government that seeks, in various ways, to improve the UK’s perception of its history,” he said. “So,” he added, “there would be a strong possibility that our admirable country would be Britain in 21st century terms.”

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