Boris Johnson & George Clooney. composite image. All parts creative commons
The long-running battle for the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, continues as the United Kingdom and Greece quarrel over the ownership. In a recent interview, British prime minister Boris Johnson declared the British Museum legally owns the sculptures. Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni challenged these claims immediately.
She argued Lord Elgin acquired the Parthenon Marbles illegally, the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini reported. “For Greece, the British Museum does not have legitimate ownership or possession of the sculptures”, Mendoni stated. The ancient artefacts have been on display in the museum since 1816. The call to return the sculptures gained more attention recently as the 200th anniversary of Greece’s independence, 25 March 2021, draws closer.
In his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming prime minister, Johnson ruled out the Parthenon marbles’ return to Athens, reported The Guardian. “They were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition”, he said.
In response to Johnson’s comments, Mendoni wrote an open letter. It states Athens could provide ”the necessary documentary evidence” that shows the British Museum is not the collection’s legitimate owner. She points out that the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport can provide new historical data that proves ”there was never a legitimate acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin.”
The collection of Greek marble sculptures ended up in Britain after Thomas Bruce, 7th earl of Elgin, removed them from the Acropolis in 1801. The earl claimed to have permission from the Ottoman government, which ruled Greece at the time. However, researchers never found any documents supporting Elgin’s claims. He sold the artefacts to the British Museum fifteen years later to avoid bankruptcy.
After Greece gained independence, it aimed to restore its looted monuments and ancient artefacts. Since then, the call to return Greek heritage has become louder. Even American actor George Clooney pleaded for the return of the marbles, the Greek Reporter wrote in March. His wife, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, worked for the Greek government to arrange the collection’s return.
The long-running dispute over the ancient treasures even reached the Brexit negotiations in February 2020. In a draft document, the EU demanded that illegally removed cultural objects return to their country of origin, Reuters reported. The UK rejected this proposal stating the sculptures were not part of the trade negotiations.
The British Museum argues the Parthenon Marbles are ”part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.” According to Greece, the museums’ practice of displaying trophies from foreign expeditions is outdated and colonial.
I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return
Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni
Culture Minister Mendoni believed the time to return the marbles is now, she told Reuters in January 2020. ”It is the mentality that has changed, the fact that Britain is distancing itself from the European family. It is 200 years since the Greek revolution. I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return.”
Until the Parthenon Marbles return to Athens, the battle about who owns the collection will continue. Recent developments such as Brexit and discussions on the decolonisation of museums are sure to play a role in this conflict of interests.