When I visited the Acropolis Museum a few months ago, I noticed that the museum which has been purpose-built to house the Elgin Marbles has a space waiting for the artefacts to be returned. For decades there has been no progress in this case. But change could be afoot after it emerged this week that the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis believes that Britain is getting closer to returning the Elgin Marbles, and he plans to raise the subject to Liz Truss on a visit to London later this year.
The ownership of the 2,500-year-old sculptures has been disputed since 1801 when Lord Elgin claimed to have permission from the occupying Ottoman authorities to remove some pieces of the Parthenon and sent workers to saw off parts of the frieze. At the time of their removal, Lord Byron condemned Elgin’s actions and more recently an unearthed article from 1986 from classics student Boris Johnson said that “The Elgin Marbles should…be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles.”
Yet the reality is that despite the extensive records kept by the Sublime Porte, no evidence of Elgin’s written permission from the Ottoman Empire has ever been found. While the artefacts were in fact looted by a strong country from a weak one, at the time it was viewed as acceptable. Nowadays, we condemn strong countries that choose to plunder weaker ones. It is time to set an example and redress a historic wrongdoing. However, this must not set a precedent, they are an exception – and exceptional.
The British Museum has done an good job of preserving and displaying them for free for generations to understand Greek culture and history, but now that Greece has built the Acropolis Museum which is dedicated to archaeological discoveries from the ancient site, this is the right time to return the marbles. Not in the 1970s when Greece was under the control of a military junta and Athens had the worst traffic pollution in Europe.
After all, a win-win solution does exist. With technological advancements, it is now possible to make a perfect replica which can stay in the British Museum whilst the originals are given back to Greece. That way Greece would have all the originals but the British Museum would have an identical copy. Greece could also make the offer more enticing by allowing a copy of the sculptures to be made of Pentelic marble, the exact same material as the originals. With technological advancements it looks like the return of the Elgin Marbles at some point in the future is inevitable, but it makes sense to get the timing right and get maximum credit from the global community, particularly in Europe.
On Christmas morning we all have things that are legally ours but we also know that giving them to somebody else will bring joy to both the giver and the receiver. At the end of the day, these artefacts belong to humanity as a whole. The history of humanity is the history of humanity.
Eli Abrams is a freelance political analyst based in London.