British Museum opens to temporary return of Parthenon marbles to Greece

Signs of openness from the British Museum for a return, at least temporarily, of the Parthenon marbles to Greece. The deputy director of the London museum proposes a partnership with Greece: still unspecified are the terms of the agreement, but it may be the right time.

The British Museum is open to the temporary return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece: the opening leaks from the words of Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the London museum, who made statements to The Times yesterday in which he proposed a partnership with Athens that could facilitate the return of the marbles to Greece after more than two hundred years.

“What we are asking for,” Williams told journalist Sara Baxter, “is an active partnership for the Parthenon with our friends and colleagues in Greece. I firmly believe that there is room for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which we can find new ways of working together.” Of course, Williams put his hands out that there will be no return: “the sculptures,” he specified, “are an absolutely integral part of the British Museum. They’ve been here for over 200 years.” However, he also admitted that “we want to change the temperature of the debate.”

According to the Times, the change of pace on the part of the British Museum, which has always been disinclined even to lend the Parthenon marbles on a temporary basis to Greece (this was only discussed in 2019, when Athens had asked the British to loan the marbles taken from the Greeks by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1803: the British museum had responded by stating that the marbles would only leave if Greece acknowledged full British ownership of them, an unacceptable precondition for Athens), would reflect British opinion on the matter: according to a YouGov poll last November, 59 percent of the population believes the marbles belong to Greece. What’s more, also in the fall of 2021, for the first time UNESCO adopted a decision to ask the UK to reconsider its positions. All reasons that have evidently prompted the British to seek agreement with Athens.

For now, the idea of creating perfect 3D replicas to be included in the British’s itinerary in place of the originals has been discarded. “People come to the British Museum to see the real works,” Williams said. The most likely hypothesis is that the marbles will return to Athens (although it is not known for how long) in exchange for long-term loans of wonders of Greece never before exhibited in the UK (The Times circulates the name of the celebrated Mask of Agamemnon). Somewhat like Italy initially did for the Palermo fragment, the only Parthenon marble preserved in our country: at first the deal was for an eight-year loan in exchange for two works arriving for the same period of time from Greece, after which Italy agreed to permanently return the work to Athens.

Of course, several loose ends remain. Greece would like the UK to recognize Greek ownership of the marbles, but the British would only be willing to lend. “We have to find a way forward around cultural exchange of a level, intensity and dynamism that has not been conceived so far,” Williams confined himself to explaining.

Even in Greece, however, a more enthusiastic climate dominates. Lina Mendoni, Greek Minister of Culture, said last week that “The atmosphere has changed. With good will we can find a way forward for both sides.” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, promised that Greece is open to negotiations, but at the same time warned that “small steps are not enough.”

Image: Parthenon Marbles, the southern part of the east pediment at the British Museum. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly

British Museum opens to temporary return of Parthenon marbles to Greece
British Museum opens to temporary return of Parthenon marbles to Greece