Brexit reignites the decades-old debate of Parthenon Sculptures

Business File, November-December 2017, No. 113
The Parthenon Sculptures

Due to Brexit negotiations the debate for the Parthenon Sculptures to be returned to Greece is resurfacing again while the British Museum is sending a big NO once more.

By Christian J. Hadjipateras
The debate has lasted for generations, but could the latest resurfacing of the issue finally add the weight needed for a change in stance? Since Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, obtained a permit in 1801 from the Ottoman Empire, which still occupied Greece at the time, the debate has rumbled on. Now, however, could be the most likely chance of finding a solution. The 75 metres of sculptures were taken from the Parthenon, the Propylaea and Erechtheum and transferred to the UK over a 12-year period.
Lord Elgin, after being cleared of any wrongdoing, sold the Marbles to the British government for a fee of £35,000 in 1816 and they have been housed in the British Museum ever since.
Greek politicians are now campaigning for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens as part of the Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Stelios Kouloglou, a member of the European Parliament for the govern- ing Marxist-style hard-left SYRIZA party, claims that EU treaty law means that the European Commission Brexit negotiators must raise the controversial issue.
Alexis Matheakis, co-founder of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee, said, in not the most diplomatic of ways: “If Britain can give back India, it can empty one room in London to return these items.” Mr Matheakis remains hopeful that Brexit can provide the avenue needed for the return of the Marbles: “We’re hoping the Greek government will do it. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Some have labelled such a demand as blackmail because all remaining 27-member states would have to unanimously agree to the final deal between the UK and EU. UKIP MEP, Jane Collins, said the Greek demands were “unacceptable”, and compared the behaviour of some in Greece to that of Spain over the Gibraltar issue. “The Greeks appear to be using the democratic vote of the British people to leave the European Union –a word that comes from the Greek ‘demos’– to settle any international gripes just like the Spanish did over Gibraltar,” she said.
Whether or not Brexit will yield any change on the fate of the Marbles remains to be seen. However, visitors to the Acropolis Museum can surely be left in no doubt as to where the Marbles should be. The museum lives, breathes and looks at the Parthenon. It has become one of the most visited museums and its modest entrance fee ensures accessibility to all.
The British actor and comedian, Stephen Fry, a long time supporter of returning the Marbles, summed up his feelings saying this is “owed” to Greece by the UK: “The Hellenic Republic today is in heart-rending turmoil; a humiliating sovereign debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of absolute ruin. This proud, beautiful nation for which Byron laid down his life is in a condition much like the one for which he mourned when they [the Greeks] were under the Ottoman yoke in the early 19th century.”
The British Museum Press O ce gave the following answers to BF:
There have recently been suggestions, both in Greece and the UK, that the Parthenon Marbles could be returned to Greece as part of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU. What are your views on that?
The Trustees position has not changed. The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago, until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures. The Trustees lend extensively all over the world and over 3.5 million objects from the collection are available to study online. The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.
One of the many arguments made by the British Museum for the case of not returning the Marbles was because Athens was lacking a secure and appropriate location to house them. However, since the opening of the Acropolis Museum back in 2009, this argument is emphatically no longer viable. Why do you still believe that the Marbles should not be returned, given that there is absolutely no doubt as to the suitability of the Acropolis Museum; there is a specific space allocated for their eventual return. The Museum and Greece are readytowelcomethemback.
This is not an argument put forward by the British Museum. The Trustees believe that the sculptures on display in London convey huge public bene t as part of the Museum’s worldwide collection. Our colleagues in Athens are, of course, fully able to conserve, preserve and display the material in their care. We admire the display in the Acropolis Museum, in which the Parthenon sculptures are complemented by casts of all of those in London and elsewhere, creating as full a picture as is now possible of the original sculptural decoration of the temple.
If the Marbles are returned to Greece this would set a precedent which would result in other countries demanding the return of their artefacts. Is this one of the main reasons the British Museum is so reluctant to relinquish the Parthenon Marbles?
This is not about individual cases, it is about the public benefit of museums. The British Museum exists to tell the story of the cultural achievement of humanity. The strength of the collection is its breadth and depth, that it covers all world cultures across time. We believe there is a huge public bene t to this world collection (both to the millions of visitors to the Museum, and the millions who experience the collection online). The collection must remain together to deliver this public benefit. However, the Museum is keen to share the collection and lends thousands of objects across the world every year.

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