The U.K. Has Held Onto the Parthenon Marbles for Centuries—But the Tide Is Turning. Here’s Why I Expect Them to Be Returned by 2030
Lockdowns have played a significant role in shifting the public's perception on restitution.
Twenty-five years ago, in the preface to the 1997 edition of his book The Parthenon Marbles, Christopher Hitchens observed that “those who support the status quo at the British Museum have the great advantage of inertia on their side.” Today, things could hardly be more different.
Back then, pressure on the London institution was mounting from Greece as it readied itself for the Athens Olympics of 2004, but also from Nigeria as it marked the centenary of the 1897 sacking of Benin City, when the Benin Bronzes were stolen and dispersed to public and private collections in the West. But those restitution claims were skillfully deflected by museum directors and civil servants through the stopgap rhetoric of the 2002 Declaration of the Universal Value of Museums, which argued that objects “acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones…have become part of the heritage of the nations which house them.” How hollow these words sound today.
Now that the Benin Bronzes are being returned by an ever-growing number of European and North American institutions, might we finally see the return of the Parthenon Marbles? I believe so. Today, the longstanding push-and-pull between Athens and London over the legal technicalities of what constitutes rightful ownership and what museum press-officers prefer to euphemistically call acquisition is being reframed.
The Decade of Returns?
For two centuries, the case for returns was made and for two centuries the museum pushed back. The 2,500-year-old fragments of the frieze, along with pedimental figures and metopes were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805 and then controversially purchased for the British Museum through an Act of Parliament in 1816. “I opposed—and will ever oppose— the robbery of ruins from Athens, to instruct the English in sculpture,” wrote the poet Lord Byron in 1821.
Even the so-called cleaning of the Marbles in 1938—their vandalistic grinding-down with blunt copper chisels and carborundum until they achieved an imagined ideal of whiteness, an event that led the sculptor Jacob Epstein in a letter to The Times to claim that the sculptures were at risk of being “permanently ruined”—did not diminish the vigor with which British Museum continued to claim possession. As recently as 2019, the current British Museum director Hartwig Fischer shocked many in the cultural sector by saying that the taking of the Elgin Marbles was “a creative act.”
When the Duveen Gallery reopened to visitors this Monday, December 13, the Marbles had not been on public display for over 13 months due to Covid-related closures and renovation work to stop water seeping into the crumbling fabric of the Greek Galleries. Together with earlier closures since March 2020, lockdowns have played a significant role in shifting public perceptions of restitution. When museum galleries must close, the boundary between the displays and the storerooms collapses, and the public might begin to ask why these objects are here in the first place if they can’t be seen by anyone. It’s an effect that is not easily reset when visitors return—and not just for the millions of items in storage, but for the most iconic of displays, too.
The first formal claim for the return of the Marbles came in 1983. Since it opened in 2009, the playful, anticipatory gesture with which the Acropolis Museum in Athens was built to await future returns has stood in stark contrast with the entrenched, backward-looking, retentionist position of the museum “keepers” in London. Take the inside-out nature of the frieze’s display at the British Museum, in which the artwork that once adorned the outside of walls has been turned inward upon the gallery space—an apt metaphor for the self-proclaimed “universal museum” that has its head in the sand.
Matters came to a head this fall, on September 28, when a resolution about the return of the Marbles came before UNESCO’s Return and Restitution Intergovernmental Committee. The British rhetoric that the British Museum “is a world museum” sounded tired coming after the elegant claim by professor Nikos Stampolidis, the newly-elected Director-General of the Acropolis Museum, that “the return of the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece is a universal demand.”
Stampolidis was not an outlier. “This is about memory and identity as well as legal considerations,” the Italian delegate said, and the Cameroonian delegate proposed a new working group on colonial cultural property. The committee’s concluding decision stated that “the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely” on the U.K. government and expressed “disappointment” with the U.K.’s position. The group called on the nation “to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bonafide dialog with Greece on the matter.”
Things are now moving quickly. In November, a renewed demand for the reunification of the Marbles was made by Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In response, the British Museum trustees doubled down on their neocolonial fantasy that restitution demands might be satisfied through loans. British prime minister Boris Johnson then added that any decision was a matter for the museum, which “operates independently of the government”—a claim hard to reconcile with the ongoing political interference with the governance and curatorial freedom of “arms-length” U.K. cultural bodies, as well as the appointment of George Osborne as the British Museum’s chair.
Then, on November 23, a YouGov poll indicated that 59 percent of the British public are in favour of the return of the Marbles to Greece, with just 18 percent against and 22 percent undecided. “The British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself,” novelist and cultural figure Ahdaf Soueif observed in her 2019 statement of resignation from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees. “It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good.”
That good influence will require ditching of the old colonial claim to rightfully possess the culture of the whole world. In Athens, grassroots initiatives like Decolonize Hellas are undermining the old British framing of a choice between either restitution in the name of nationalism or retention in the name of universalism. That peculiar colonial variety of British cultural nationalism that was based on a claim to universalism has failed, and the many positive dimensions of acts of permanent, unconditional restitution on a case-by-case basis are being recognized.
In my book, The Brutish Museums, I described the 2020s as “a decade of returns.” This global conversation about restitution increasingly centres on social justice, transparency, the repayment of debts, fairness, as well as a new model of museums in which these spaces are not nostalgic end-points but future-oriented, living places. On December 8, a resolution proposed by Greece titled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. As African and Greek demands for restitution are restated, the potential role of UNESCO in future developments could be very significant.
Predictions are always risky, and as an archaeologist I confess that the future is technically not my period of expertise. Nonetheless, in this new cultural, internationalist, and intellectual atmosphere, it’s hard to believe that the Parthenon Marbles won’t have been reunited in Athens by the end of the decade.
Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford. His latest book, The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution is now out in paperback. Twitter: @ProfDanHicks
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