In Depth

Is it time to return the Elgin Marbles?

For decades, there has been no progress – but UK and Greek ministers of culture are meeting to discuss the issue

When it comes to the vexed question of what to do with art and artefacts that have been taken from their home countries, one dispute dominates them all, said Elizabeth Djinis in Smithsonian Magazine: the row over the Parthenon, or Elgin, marbles, taken from Athens between 1801 and 1805, and housed at the British Museum since 1816.

Greece began asking for the return of the sculptures – which include a 247ft section of the original Parthenon frieze – in 1983. At the heart of the row is the question of whether Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, acted lawfully in sending them to Britain.

The British government argues he had the permission of the Ottoman authorities ruling Greece at the time. Greece says the removal was legally and morally flawed: it wants them back to display in “its sparkling new Acropolis Museum”.

For decades, there has been no progress. But is change afoot? UK and Greek ministers of culture will be meeting to discuss the issue in the coming weeks, according to Unesco, the UN’s heritage organisation.

Role of Western archaeologists

Lord Elgin didn’t plunder the marbles, he bought them – and saved them, said Zareer Masani in The Daily Telegraph. The Parthenon had been bombarded by the Venetians in the 17th century, and later suffered “the predations of Turkish tour-guides, who lopped off bits for souvenir-hungry tourists”. We too easily forget the “enormous role” that Western archaeologists and private collectors such as Elgin have played in conserving treasures and making them accessible to millions.

And if we accept the logic that they must go back to their point of origin, then why not return “anything else that wasn’t made in Britain”? Such a “surrender to nativism” would “impoverish museums all over the world”.

Marbles are a special case

True, but the Parthenon marbles are a special case, said Jonny Walfisz on Euronews: they’re a “Greek national symbol”. Greece isn’t asking for all of its antiquities back; it just wants the marbles. And returning them could lead to Greece loaning other antiquities to the British Museum, making for more exciting exhibitions.

It’s hard to tell what the UK line is, said Cristina Ruiz in The Art Newspaper. At a recent Unesco meeting, the British government claimed that it had no authority to discuss the sculptures’ future, since they belonged to the British Museum, an independent body. Meanwhile, the British Museum argues that any return would require a change in the law. As international “pressure for restitution” mounts, it seems British officials are “struggling to articulate a coherent policy”.

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