The UK has clung to the Parthenon Marbles for centuries, but the tide is turning. Here’s why I expect them to be there by 2030

Twenty-five years ago, in the preface to the 1997 edition of his book The Parthenon marbles, Christopher Hitchens observed that “those who support the status quo at the British Museum have the great advantage of inertia on their side.” Today, things could hardly be more different.

At the time, pressure on the London institution was mounting from Greece as it prepared for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but also from Nigeria as it marked the centenary of Benin City’s sack in 1897. , when the Benin bronzes were stolen and scattered to the public. and private collections in the West. But these restitution demands were cleverly diverted by museum directors and officials through the palliative rhetoric of 2002. Declaration of the Universal Value of Museums, who argued that objects “acquired under conditions which are not comparable to current ones … have become part of the heritage of the nations that shelter them”. How hollow these words ring today.

Now that the Benin bronzes have been returned by an ever-increasing number of European and North American institutions, could we finally witness the return of the Parthenon marbles? I believe him. Today, the long-standing push-and-pull between Athens and London over the legal intricacies of what constitutes legitimate property and what museum press officers prefer to euphemistically call acquisition is being reframed.

Part of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. Photo: by VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images.

The decade of returns?

For two centuries the returns business was done and for two centuries the museum retreated. Fragments of the 2,500-year-old frieze, along with pediment figures and metopes were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805, and then controversially purchased for the British Museum by an Act of Parliament in 1816. “I opposed – and will always oppose – the theft of the ruins of Athens, to instruct the English in sculpture”, wrote the poet Lord Byron in 1821.

Even the so-called cleaning of the marbles in 1938 – their vandalist grinding with dull copper scissors and carborundum until they reached an imaginary ideal of whiteness, an event which led sculptor Jacob Epstein in a letter to The temperature claiming that the sculptures risked being “permanently ruined” – did not diminish the vigor with which the British Museum continued to claim possession. As recently as 2019, the current director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, shocked many actors in the cultural sector by saying that the taking of the Elgin Marbles was “a creative act.”

When the Duveen Gallery reopened to visitors on Monday, December 13, the Marbles had not been exposed to the public for more than 13 months due to the closures linked to the Covid and the halt in renovation work water seeping into the ruined fabric of Greek galleries. Along with previous closings since March 2020, the closures have played a significant role in changing public perceptions of restitution. When the museum’s galleries have to close, the line between exhibits and storerooms crumbles, and the public might start to wonder why these objects are here in the first place if they can’t be seen by anyone. This is an effect that is not easily reset when visitors return, and not just for the millions of stored items, but also for the most iconic screens.

A banner demanding the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum in London in 2007 to Athens. Photo: AFP Photo / Louisa Gouliamaki via Getty Images.

The first official demand for the return of the marbles came in 1983. Since its opening in 2009, the playful and anticipatory gesture with which the Acropolis Museum in Athens was built to await future returns has contrasted with the entrenchment. and the past, the retentionist position of the museum’s “guardians” in London. Take nature upside down from the frieze exhibit at the British Museum, in which the artwork that once adorned the exterior of the walls was turned inward onto the gallery space – a fitting metaphor for the self-proclaimed “universal museum” with its head in the sand.

Things came to a head this fall, September 28, when a resolution on the Return of the Marbles appeared before the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on Return and Restitution. the British rhetoric that the British Museum “is a museum of the world” seemed tired after Professor Nikos Stampolidis’ elegant assertion, the Newly elected Director General of the Acropolis Museum, this “the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece is a universal demand. “

Stampolidis was not an outlier. “It is about memory and identity as well as legal considerations,” said the Italian delegate, and the Cameroonian delegate proposed a new working group on colonial cultural property. The committee’s conclusion decision declared that “the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures falls squarely” on the UK government and expressed “disappointment” with the UK position. The group called on the nation “to reconsider its position and engage in good faith dialogue with Greece on the issue.”

Sculptures which form part of the ‘Elgin Marbles’, taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece at the British Museum in London, England. Photo by Graham Barclay, BWP Media / Getty Images.

Things are moving fast now. In November, a new request for the reunification of the Marbles was made by the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In response, the trustees of the British Museum doubled down on their neocolonial fantasy that restitution demands could be met through loans. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson then added that any decision rests with the museum, which “operates independently of government” – a claim difficult to reconcile with the current political interference in the governance and conservation freedom of “unrelated British culture. dependency “. organs, as well as the appointment of George Osborne as President of the British Museum.

Then, on November 23, a YouGov poll indicated that 59% of the British public were in favor of the return of the Marbles to Greece, with only 18% against and 22% undecided. “The British Museum is not a good thing in itself,” observed novelist and cultural figure Ahdaf Soueif in her 2019 statement of resignation from the board of trustees of the British Museum. “He is only good in so far as his influence in the world is for the good.”

This good influence will require the abandonment of the old colonial claim to legitimately possess the culture of the whole world. In Athens, popular initiatives like Decolonize Hellas question the old British framing of a choice between restitution in the name of nationalism or retention in the name of universalism. This particular colonial variety of British cultural nationalism which rested on a claim of universalism has failed, and the many positive dimensions of acts of permanent and unconditional restitution on a case-by-case basis are recognized.

The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece.  Photo: See Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo: See Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

In my book, Raw museums, I described the 2020s as “a decade of returns. “This global conversation on restitution is increasingly focused on social justice, transparency, debt repayment, equity, as well as a new model of museums in which these spaces are not nostalgic ends but forward-looking places to live On 8 December, a resolution proposed by Greece entitled “Return or restitution of cultural property to countries of origin” was adopted. unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. As African and Greek restitution demands are reaffirmed, UNESCO’s potential role in future developments could be very important.

Predictions are always risky, and as an archaeologist I admit that the future is technically not my period of expertise. Nevertheless, in this new cultural, internationalist and intellectual atmosphere, it is difficult to believe that the Parthenon marbles will not have been reunited in Athens by the end of the decade.

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archeology at the University of Oxford. His latest book, The Brutish Museums: the bronzes of Benin, colonial violence and cultural restitution is now in pocket format. Twitter: @ProfDanHicks

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