Return of Parthenon marbles is up to British Museum, says No 10

Returning the Parthenon marbles to Greece is a matter for the British Museum, Downing Street has said, apparently reversing longstanding UK government opposition to the idea, reiterated by Boris Johnson as recently as March.

Johnson was scheduled to meet the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at No 10 later on Tuesday, and Mitsotakis was expected to argue that the reunification of the “stolen” sculptures was a key mutual issue, and one that had to be resolved by ministers.

“It’s of great importance to him,” a Greek source said before the visit. “Our arguments are very strong. Now is the time to have a dialogue in good faith.”

The UK government has long resisted the idea of returning the 80 metres of monumental frieze sawn off from the Parthenon in 1802 on the order of Lord Elgin, Britain’s then ambassador to the Ottoman empire, which remain in London. Another 50 metres remain in Athens, with other parts in museums across Europe.

In an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea in March, Johnson stressed that this remained the position, despite “the strong feelings of the Greek people”.

He said: “The UK government has a firm, longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that 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.”

But when Johnson’s spokesperson was asked on Tuesday what the message to Mitsotakis would be at the meeting, he said: “I won’t pre-empt their meeting, obviously, but the possession of the marbles is a matter purely for the museum. It’s not one for the UK government.”

Questioned about the apparent change to the previous UK position, he said: “The British Museum operates independently of the government. It is free, rightly, from political interference. Any decisions relating to the collections are taken by the museum’s trustees, and any question about the location for the Parthenon sculptures is a matter for them.”

The seeming shift in approach is likely to reignite the wider debate about museums returning artefacts taken from other countries during colonial times, which UK ministers have so far resisted under the mantra of “retain and explain”.

Some regional UK museums have said they could repatriate disputed Benin bronzes, most of which were looted by British forces in 1897. This year Germany said it would start returning a “substantial” number of the Benin bronzes held in its museums to Nigeria.

Maintenance work at the British Museum and the pandemic have prevented the Parthenon marbles from being publicly viewed for almost a year. The Acropolis Museum, which was purpose-built to house the classical carvings at the foot of the monument in Athens, reopened in May.

Mitsotakis is particularly keen to secure the sculptures’ repatriation, having described the UK’s refusal to engage in talks as a “losing battle”.

The British Museum’s consistent view is that the sculptures were acquired legally, with Elgin receiving formal consent from the Ottoman empire, which governed Athens, to remove the section of sculptures from the Parthenon, along with “sculptural and architectural elements” from other buildings on the Acropolis.

“His actions were thoroughly investigated by a parliamentary select committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, prior to the sculptures entering the collection of the British Museum by act of parliament,” the museum says on its website.

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