British culture Secretary Michelle Donelan has issued a warning that returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece would be a “very dangerous and slippy road.”
The 2,500 year old Parthenon sculptures (also referred to in popular culture as the 'Parthenon Marbles' or the 'Elgin Marbles') were removed from the Acropolis in Athens over 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803, which occupied Greece from 1458 -1820s.
The British Museum says that Elgin acquired the artefacts legally, after being given a permit by Ottoman leaders giving him permission to take them.
Greece, however, disagrees and has repeatedly asked that the stolen artefacts be returned to their rightful home in Greece.
Donelans’ warning comes as reports emerged this week from London about secret negotiations between George Osborne, the Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and other senior ministers over the fate of the Elgin collection of Parthenon sculptures currently held on display in the museum’s controversial Duveen Gallery.
According to Donelan, who has served as Britain’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport since September 2022, restoring the Sculptures to their homeland of Greece would only serve to spark a wave of further demands for the return of other ancient artefacts that are currently also held in Britain.
“Where does that end?,” asked Ms Donelan, who highlighted how the law currently 'does not allow' historical objects to leave the UK with the exception of certain circumstances.
“There are some people that are strongly advocating to return some of these items permanently. The current law does not allow that, it should be acknowledged.
“I can completely understand the position that they are taking and I can sympathise with some of the argument. But I do think that is a very dangerous and slippy road to embark down.
The Culture Secretary added that Britain had 'taken great care' over artefacts held in the country's museums 'for decades' and had conducted 'considerable' research into historical items.
“Once you start giving one back, where does that end?” she asked.
Donelan continued by saying that, in her opinion the status quo is working and should be protected – and that in any case it would be “difficult to know who to give these things back to.”
“It's also very difficult to know who to give these things back to. We're talking about very ancient items in many respects,” she said.
“There are certain examples where it is not clear over exactly who the owners are. And others where I would argue it is more clear that we have a direct link to ownership.
“But, certainly, I think the current status quo is working and we should protect it.”