The return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to Greece is a recurring subject in the past few years, with the majority of the British public being in favor.
A Saturday editorial in Britain’s The Guardian says that the restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures is a difficult legal problem that preserves the status quo.
Greece is pushing for the repatriation of the priceless artefacts, a struggle that started in the 1980s by then Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.
The legality of their acquisition in 1801 remains questionable, writer Charlotte Higgins says, especially in this day where “the legacies of colonialism are scrutinized” and cultural artifacts are returned to their homes.
Even in 1816, their presence in the British Museum was controversial, as to whether Lord Elgin used his position as ambassador to acquire the permit from the Ottoman authorities to abstract a few stones from the Acropolis in Athens.
The repatriation of the sculptures seems simple, but is not
A recent poll in Britain shows that the majority of Britons is in favor of the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles to their home.
Philhellene Prime Minister Boris Johnson was passionately for restitution in his student days. But now he can not decide by himself because national museums are independent from government.
It seems simple enough, though: The sculptures were made in Athens in honor of the city and its gods’ at the time, so they should be returned.
Also, their marble siblings are at the Acropolis Museum since 2009, so it is only natural that they should be reunited.
Furthermore, the display of the 75m sculptures in the airy galleries of the Acropolis Museum with a view of the Parthenon temple is museum display perfection.
By comparison, the writer says, the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery (where the sculptures are exhibited) can seem bleak and depressing.
Three reasons that obstruct the cherished return
As Johnson has said, the Parthenon Sculptures are a matter for the trustees of the British Museum.
“It’s not impossible, then, that the trustees might wake up one morning and decide that the Parthenon sculptures would render most benefit to the public if they were displayed in the Acropolis Museum,” Higgins says.
Yet, this is not something that can be done in the short term, she argues. For three reasons:
One reason is that trustees of the British Museum — or any such institution — can not take such a radical decision.
Another is that by displaying the Parthenon Marbles being near Assyrian and Egyptian art, the interconnectivity between cultures is highlighted, and that would not be the case in Athens.
A third reason is the 1963 British Museum Act and its amendments that state that the trustees can not deaccession collection items except under very specific circumstances:
“If they are degraded or riddled with pests, if they are “duplicates”, or if they are deemed by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel to have been looted or bought under duress during the Holocaust.”
So, the trustees can not return the Parthenon Marbles because of the law, and Greece can not get them back because they don’t recognize the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures.
And this is the impasse.
Repatriation is “the sensible course”
Charlotte Higgins suggests that repatriation is the sensible way:
“The sensible course is for the government to institute an expert panel to hammer out principles on which repatriation claims to national museums can be soberly assessed, as has now long been done for artefacts linked to the Holocaust.”
Yet, she concludes, “The Westminster government with its willful nativism seems unlikely to be minded to do that. But repatriation is today’s question. And almost certainly tomorrow’s, too.”