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British Museum confirms ‘constructive discussions’ with Greece on Elgin Marbles

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The British Museum has said it continues to have “constructive discussions” over the possible return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece after 200 years.

The 2,500-year-old sculptures were removed from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

The 17 artifacts were bought by the British government, which passed them on to the British Museum, where they remain one of the most prized exhibits, making up 30% of the Parthenon sculptures of ancient Greece.

Senior Conservator Karen Birkhoelzer is seen with the sculpture The River God Ilissos by Phidias, part of the part of the Elgin marbles
Senior conservator Karen Birkhoelzer with the sculpture The River God Ilissos by Phidias, part of the so-called Elgin Marbles (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has on many occasions called for the marbles to be returned, even offering to lend some of his country’s other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

On Wednesday, a British Museum spokesman said: “We’ve said publicly we’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and, as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing.”

It comes after the Government rejected Tory peer Lord Vaizey of Didcot’s call for a change in the law to make it easier for UK museums to deal with restitution requests. Current legislation prevents treasures from being legally given away by the museum.

Campaigners dressed as Lord Elgin and a Parthenon Marble demonstrate outside the British Museum in London, calling for the museum to return the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, to Greece
Campaigners dressed as Lord Elgin and a Parthenon Marble demonstrate outside the British Museum, calling for the museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told the PA news agency: “The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum are legally owned by the trustees of the British Museum, which is operationally independent of Government. Decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for the trustees.”

Last month, the museum said it has “publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece” and will “talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to take that forward”.

It added: “We operate within the law, and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.

“But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”

The British Museum’s response follows a report from the Telegraph, which said the museum’s chairman, former Tory chancellor George Osborne, has drawn up an agreement with Athens as part of a “cultural exchange.”

Here is everything you need to know about the sculptures:

– What are the Elgin Marbles?

Parthenon Marbles
A section of the Parthenon Marbles in London’s British Museum (Matthew Fearne/PA)

Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, the sculptures are remnants of a 160m-long carved stone frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom.

The Parthenon was built between 447-432 BC and is considered the crowning work of classical architecture.

Much was lost in a 17th-century bombardment, and about half the remaining works were removed in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin, and given to the British Museum.

– Why is there a controversy?

The sculptures’ presence in Britain has been the subject of ongoing controversy and debate, which has raged for decades.

Buildings and Landmarks – British Museum Great Court – London
The Great Court of the British Museum in London (Chris Young/PA)

Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens, which the British Museum and Government have previously rejected.

In December, Pope Francis decided to send back to Greece the three fragments of Parthenon sculptures that the Vatican museums have held for centuries, leaving the British Museum among those declining to do the same.

On Wednesday, a British Museum spokesman said: “We’ve said publicly we’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and, as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing.”

– Where are they currently housed??

Of the 50% of the original sculptures that survive, around half are in the British Museum and half in Athens, according to the British Museum.

INTERIOR OF THE PARTHENON : 1967
A view of the west interior of the Parthenon on the Acropolis (PA)

The 17 sculptures have been in the British Museum since 1816, apart from the war years when they were stored underground in a Tube station for safety. The sculpture of the river god Ilissos was temporarily loaned to the St Petersburg State Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, stepped down following controversy after he backed the move to loan a section of the display to Russia.

In 2009, the Acropolis Museum was built in central Athens to house the sculptures that remain in Greece alongside other treasures.

– What has the Greek government previously said?

A formal request for the permanent return of all of the Parthenon Sculptures held in London to Greece was first made in 1983, and discussions have been ongoing since, according to the British Museum’s website.

Audience at Windsor Castle
King Charles III holds an audience with the prime minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has on many occasions called for the marbles to be returned, even offering to lend some of his country’s other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

In recent years, a team of London lawyers, including Amal Clooney, the wife of Hollywood film star George Clooney, were involved in talks with the Greek government about a potential legal bid for the works.

Successive Greek governments have “refused to acknowledge” the trustees’ title to the Parthenon Sculptures, the British Museum said.

– What has the British Government said about the Elgin Marbles?

Ministers have long-resisted calls for the classical sculptures to be returned to Greece.

The British Government rejected Tory peer Lord Vaizey of Didcot’s call for a change in the law to make it easier for UK museums to deal with restitution requests.

Current legislation prevents treasures from being legally given away by the museum.

Former prime minister Liz Truss ruled out supporting a deal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, despite George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum and former Tory chancellor, saying there is a “deal to be done” to share the sculptures with Greece.

Londontopia Staff
Author: Londontopia Staff

This article was submitted and adapted by Londontopia Staff and used with a license from the Press Association UK (PA Media). All images and content used with permission.

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