Elgin Marbles, Mitsotakis meets with Johnson. Cold shower from Downing Street: it's British matter.


Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met today with British counterpart Boris Johnson: Greece also wanted to use the summit to talk about the Parthenon Marbles. But a cold shower comes from Downing Street: "it is the British Museum's matter."

A new chapter was written today in the complicated story of Greece’s demand for the return of the Parthenon marbles kept in the British Museum. As is well known, the marble reliefs that decorated the temple in Athens were removed by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, in 1811: Elgin obtained permission from the authorities of the Ottoman Empire (on which Greece was dependent at the time) to bring the marbles to England, but it was a transfer that Greece has always contested. Today a summit was scheduled between the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and in recent days the Greek president had indicated his willingness to bring to Johnson’s attention precisely the issue of the return of the marbles.

Requests from the Greek side in recent times have become particularly frequent because Greece would like to celebrate with the return of the marbles the bicentennial of the War of Independence, which began in 1822. In recent hours, Mitsotakis has also made it known that Greece is willing to lend its assets to the British Museum as part of a possible deal to unblock the situation around the marbles. “Our position is very clear,” the Greek premier told The Daily Telegraph on the eve of today’s meeting. “The marbles were stolen in the 19th century, they belong to the Acropolis Museum and we need to discuss this issue seriously. I am sure that if there is a willingness on the part of the government, we can come to an agreement with the British Museum that could involve us sending some of our treasures that have never left the country on loan.”

However, a British government spokesman told the Guardian earlier that a cold shower came from Downing Street for Greece, since, for the British government, any return is a matter for the British Museum and not the government. The problem is that the British Museum has an opposite way of looking at the issue than Greece. According to the London institution, Lord Elgin acted with full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the time, both those in Athens and London.

Boris Johnson had previously intervened on the issue. In an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea in March, the British premier had said that “the UK government has long held a firm position on these sculptures, which were legally acquired by Lord Elgin within the laws of the time and are therefore the legitimate property of the British Museum since their acquisition.” The latest developments in the affair have also involvedUNESCO, which in October adopted a Decision asking the UK to reconsider its position and dialogue with Greece. Unesco, in official documents, acknowledges moreover “that the case has an intergovernmental character and that, therefore, the commitment to return the Parthenon sculptures falls on the government of the United Kingdom.”

That is not the view of the British Museum, however, which does not believe the case can be resolved by going through UNESCO. “The British Museum,” the institution said in a statement, “has a long history of working with UNESCO and admires and supports its work. However, the British Museum is not a government agency. The trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections entrusted to them and to make them accessible to the world public. The trustees want to strengthen existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece and explore collaborative initiatives directly between institutions, not on the basis of government-to-government relations. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward.” In short, again there is little reason to believe that the situation will be unblocked, despite President Mitsotakis’ confidence.

Pictured: the Parthenon pediment sculptures, east side, preserved at the British Museum. Ph. Credit Andrew Dunn

Elgin Marbles, Mitsotakis meets with Johnson. Cold shower from Downing Street: it's British matter.
Elgin Marbles, Mitsotakis meets with Johnson. Cold shower from Downing Street: it's British matter.


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