The UK’s Labour Party Leader Pledges to Return the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece

Jeremy Corbyn has said he will engage in “constructive talks” regarding the embattled sculptures if he is elected Prime Minister of the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn, left, photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images. A marble sculpture from the Parthenon in the British museum, right, photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images.

The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party has pledged to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece if he is elected prime minister in the next general election slated for 2022.

Jeremy Corbyn made the promise when speaking to a reporter for the Greek newspaper Ta Nea in an interview published on Saturday. “They were made in Greece, and that is where they were for thousands of years until they were taken by Lord Elgin,” Corbyn reportedly told the Greek paper. “We should be engaged in constructive talks with the Greek government about returning the sculptures.”

Before he became Labour leader, Corbyn had previously voiced his support for repatriation of the marbles. But his statement to the Greek newspaper is his clearest and most explicit on the subject since he assumed his current role in 2015.

The classical Greek and marble sculptures were originally made under the fifth century sculptor Phidias and became part of the temple of the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis in Athens. The collection in London is also known as the Elgin Marbles, named after the British aristocrat who removed the pieces in the early 19th century when Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

Elgin obtained a special decree from the Ottoman government to remove more than half of the surviving marbles to decorate his home in Scotland. He later sold the collection to the British government in 1816; they have been on display at the British Museum since 1817. When Hartwig Fischer became the museum’s director in 2016, he maintained the institution’s position against their return. 

“While we respect Jeremy Corbyn’s views, the British Museum is an arm’s length body from government and decisions regarding any objects in the collection sit with the British Museum’s Trustees,” a spokesperson for the British Museum told artnet News. “We feel there is a great public benefit to some of the Parthenon Sculptures being on display, where they can be seen as part of a world collection and help millions of visitors to understand the interconnectivity of human history.”

Sculptures which form part of the ‘Elgin Marbles’, taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece at the British Museum in London, England. Photo by Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images.

A page on the British Museum’s website dedicated to the Parthenon sculptures reiterates the trustees’ belief that “the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries…. The trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of ancient Greece.”

Architectural sculptures from the Acropolis are currently held by the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens. There are also lesser-known fragments from the Parthenon in the Louvre in Paris.

Greece has been petitioning for the return of the marbles since the country became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. Last week, UNESCO called for the UK to enter into talks with Greece on their possible repatriation. Twelve countries—including, for the first time, France—approved the decision. 

The issue of the marbles is a longstanding one, with vocal proponents of their return including Lord Byron in the 19th century. More recently, the high-profile human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney has also been involved in Greek efforts to reunite the sculptures in Athens. 

In 2015, the British Museum turned down an offer by UNESCO to mediate discussions between Britain and the UK. At the time, the trustees stated that they believed the most constructive way forward would be “to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world.”

A survey of 4,061 UK adults conducted by YouGov in 2017 showed that 55 percent of respondents believe the sculptures belong in Greece. Just 15 percent of Labour voters responded that the works belong in Britain.

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