LONDON– The British Museum has pledged not to dismantle its collection after reports that the institution’s chairman held secret talks with the Greek Prime Minister about the return of the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin sculptures.
Greek newspaper Ta Nea’s report is the latest twist in a long-running dispute over ownership of the ancient sculptures, which originally stood on the Acropolis in Athens and have been a centerpiece of the British Museum’s collection since 1816.
Ta Nea reported on Saturday that negotiations between museum chairman George Osborne and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have been going on since November 2021 and are at an advanced stage.
While the museum did not deny talks took place, a spokesperson declined to discuss the details of the Ta Nea story. The museum said it was ready to talk “to anyone, including the Greek government” about a new Parthenon “partnership”.
“As the Board of Trustees said last month, we are acting within the law and will not dismantle our magnificent collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” the museum said in a statement released Saturday. “But we are looking for new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and of course that includes Greece.”
The Greek government did not comment on the report.
Although British authorities have rebuffed efforts to return the sculptures to Greece since at least 1941, the tone has recently changed as museums around the world seek to allay concerns about the way ancient artefacts were preserved during periods of imperial rule and acquired during colonial expansion.
In July, Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the British Museum, said the institution wanted to “change the temperature of the marbles debate”.
“What we are calling for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece,” he told the Sunday Times. “I truly believe that there is room for a truly dynamic and positive conversation where new ways of working together can be found.”
On its website, the museum says it is willing to consider loaning the sculptures to Greece, but successive Greek governments have refused to recognize the museum’s ownership. According to the museum, there are currently no negotiations on this topic.
During a visit to London on November 28, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis indicated that some talks had taken place.
“I don’t want to speak publicly about the discussions we’ve had,” he said. “But I think there is a better understanding that perhaps a win-win solution can be found that will result in a reunion of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece, while also addressing concerns that the British Museum may have.” “
The issue is complicated by an Act of Parliament that prohibits the museum from selling, giving away or otherwise disposing of items in its collection unless they are duplicates or not required for study.
The marbles are remnants of a 160-meter-long frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Much was lost in a 17th-century bombardment, and about half of the remaining works were removed by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin, in the early 19th century.
They ended up in the British Museum, which has repeatedly rejected Greek calls for their return.
Successive Greek governments have campaigned for the return of the British Museum’s share of the works, which include statues from the pediments of the Parthenon – the building’s all-marble gables. They argue that while Greece was an involuntary part of the Ottoman Empire, Elgin illegally sawed off the sculptures, exceeding the terms of a questionable permit from the Turkish authorities.
The British Museum rejects this stance – despite indications that UK public opinion favors the Greek claim – and has shown little willingness to return the works permanently.
The Parthenon was built between 447-432 BC. Built in the 3rd century BC and is considered the culmination of classical architecture. The frieze showed a procession in honor of Athena. Some small pieces of it – and other Parthenon sculptures – are in other European museums.