LONDON – The British Museum should accept that the stolen Parthenon Marbles housed there some 200 years should be returned to Greece, the rightful owners, Charlotte Higgins, Culture Writer for the British Newspaper The Guardian has writen.
That comes Greece has stepped up pressure for the stolen treasures to be sent back although the museum officials and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that won’t happen.
“Those who would see the Parthenon marbles return to Greece sense change in the air,” wrote Higgins, noting the museum has long been accused of housing pilfered cultural artifacts from its previous colonies, but she said those are different cases from the Parthenon Marbles.
Nearly half the frieze’s on perhaps the world’s greatest cultural and architectural masterpiece were ripped off some 200 years ago by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who said he had permission of the ruling Ottoman Empire which didn’t own them.
Nearly broke when he returned to the United Kingdom, he sold them to the British Museum which insists that it’s now the rightful owner and disputes that they were stolen.
After a Sicilian museum agreed to loan Greece another stolen piece of the marbles – which Greek hopes could become a return – the British Museum has been under pressure to also send back the rest, although at a cost to Greece.
During a visit to London, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis asked for Johnson’ help but the British Premier – in a 180-degree turn from his stance before he took office – said he won’t politically intervene.
The Times, the UK’s Conservative newspaper which has long stood by the British Museum in refusal to acknowledge the Parthenon Marbles are Greek, reversed itself, adding to the pressure for their return.
“Separating components of an artistic whole is like tearing Hamlet out of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works,” a Times editorial said although Higgins dismissed that, saying that much of stonework is destroyed already.
TOOLS OF ARROGANCE
“The case for return has seemed all the more compelling since the 2009 opening of the Acropolis Museum, whose airy galleries, in sight of the temple itself, do such a wonderful job of telling the story of the Parthenon. By comparison, the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery can seem bleak and depressing,” she wrote.
Johnson, an alleged Philhellene had as a student written passionately in favor of their return but did an abrupt about-face when asked by Mitsotakis to meet that promise.
“National museums in Britain are not an extension of government, they are at arm’s length and independent from it,” she said, as he said it’s a question for the British Museum trustees to decide.
“It’s not impossible, then, that the trustees might wake up one morning and decide that the Parthenon sculptures would render most benefit to the public if they were displayed in the Acropolis Museum,” she added.
But she doubts they will and that the British will hold onto them at all costs in the face of overwhelming opinion – including in the United Kingdom – to send them back.
“Trustees of institutions such as the British Museum are, collectively, constitutionally unsuited to taking radical decisions, however independent-minded they may be individually,” she wrote.
She also cited the 1936 British Museum act which states that the trustees cannot “deaccession” cultural items in almost any circumstance, such as those stolen during the Holocaust.
“It’s not up to the government, it’s up to the trustees. And yet it’s not up to the trustees, because of the law. And it can’t lend to the Greeks, because the Greeks don’t recognize the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures,” she wrote, seeming to defend the position the marbles don’t belong to Greece.
She said a former British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, made a compelling argument that the institution is the central repository for treasures it doesn’t own, from other countries.
Now, she wrote that he would “concede that restitution is, in fact, today’s question,” and the trustees “have a duty to act ethically,” with no indication they will.
“The sensible course is for the government to institute an expert panel to hammer out principles on which repatriation claims to national museums can be soberly assessed,” she added, pessimistic that would happen under Johnson.