LONDON – The New York Times has shined a spotlight on the latest calls for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Reporter Alex Marshall began his piece by noting that “in 1984, Neil Kinnock, then leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, did something few politicians here have dared: He pledged to return the Parthenon Marbles.” Kinnock said it was “a moral issue… the Parthenon without the marbles is like a smile with a missing tooth.”
As one would expect, however, “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 didn’t push the idea… Most of his successors, including Tony Blair, insisted the marbles should stay put in the British Museum, as one of its highlights,” Marshall noted.
The sculptures were opened to the public again last week after coronavirus restrictions and maintenance work forced the gallery’s temporary closure. Marshall wrote that, “they reappeared as activists around Europe are clamoring to rectify perceived historical injustices, yet the idea of returning the marbles to Athens seems to have as little political support here as it did in Kinnock’s day. The British government’s official position is that it is not responsible for the marbles’ fate: That, it says, is a matter for the British Museum’s trustees, a group largely appointed by the prime minister that has repeatedly said the sculptures are integral to the museum’s mission of telling world history.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who once said the Marbles should be returned, as Mayor of London in 2012 said, he “had reflected deeply over many years” on the sculptures, but despite feeling sympathy with Greek feelings on the issue, he concluded that it would be “a grievous and irremediable loss” for the British Museum.
“When Johnson met with Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, last month, he reiterated the government position that anything to do with the marbles was a question for British Museum trustees, not him,” said Marshall, while also noting that “throughout 2021, as other European governments announced restitution policies and gave items back, Britain’s buck-passing on the marbles looked increasingly out of step… in Britain, a one-time colonial and trading power whose museums are stuffed with treasures from its former possessions, restitution is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government, nor the opposition Labour party, has issued a policy statement on the subject, and there has been no debate on the issue in Parliament.”
The ground around Parliament may be shifting, however. “By tradition, Britain’s government does not interfere in the day-to-day running of museums it funds. But the current government has recently applied pressure to shape their policies,” Marshall writes, adding that “activists say the government could take action on the Parthenon Marbles if it wanted to. Artemis Papathanassiou, a member of a committee under Greece’s culture ministry that works for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said that since Britain’s government sets the rules for major museums and often appoints their trustees, it should get involved. ‘They just don’t want to take responsibility,’” she said.
And UNESCO has weighed in, declaring the issue “has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures lies squarely on the United Kingdom government.”
Marshall points out that “lawmakers insist the matter is out their hands, even though, under the 1963 law that governs the British Museum, the trustees can only remove items from the collection if they are ‘unfit to be retained’ and ‘can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students. Samantha Knights, a lawyer working on restitution cases, said that the law was so vague that it potentially gave the trustees some leeway. When Elgin took the marbles, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire; he had a permit to make excavations at the Parthenon, though it is unclear whether he had permission to remove anything. Knights said the trustees ‘could decide that, because of the history of the way the Parthenon Marbles came to be acquired, and the very powerful arguments of the Greek government for their return, they are now ‘unfit to be retained,’ she said.”
“The British Museum’s trustees do not seem in the mood for giving back,” Marshall writes, adding that, “since September, the board has been led by George Osborne, a former Conservative lawmaker who was Britain’s finance chief from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to several 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 lending our artifacts to anywhere 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, holding out for their permanent return.” Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, did not submit to an interview either.
Janet Suzman is an actor and the chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. According to Marshall, she said “she hoped changing attitudes around the world to where African artifacts belong would influence views on the marbles. In November, a survey by YouGov, a polling organization, said 59 percent of the British public believes the marbles belong in Greece. But Osborne’s appointment had made her ‘much less hopeful’ about the cause, Suzman said. ‘Nobody is appointed to the British Museum unless you swear on your mother’s grave that you won’t be returning anything,’ she said.”