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Will the British Museum give back the Elgin Marbles? History explained

The Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece as the British Museum reportedly closes in on a landmark deal  (Matthew Fearn / PA)
The Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece as the British Museum reportedly closes in on a landmark deal (Matthew Fearn / PA)

Recent weeks have placed the British Museum at the heart of controversy as thousands of artefacts were reported stolen.

A Met Police investigation, which has led to one member of staff being sacked, is still continuing.

In the meantime, the chairman of the institution, George Osborne, has said that the museum has been able to recover some of the stolen items and is committed to delivering “stronger leadership”.

Amid all of this, Greece is continuing talks with Osborne to complete a historic cultural swap that would see the country reclaim some of its sculptures in return for other Greek treasures being sent to London.

And Greek archaeologists have been saying that the recent theft of artefacts shows how the Elgin Marbles are not safe in Britain.

The ongoing discussions around it have led to many wondering what exactly the sculptures in question are, who technically owns them, what the controversy is about, and if the British Museum will ever actually let them go.

Elgin Marbles (British Museum)
Elgin Marbles (British Museum)

What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Ancient Greek sculptures that belonged to the Parthenon and some of the other parts of the Acropolis of Athens.

The sculptures were removed and shipped over to Britain by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, during the Ottoman period. His agents removed around half of the surviving Parthenon sculptures, as well as other important artefacts, between 1802 and 1812.

While it has been argued that this was done with the permission of Ottoman officials, who were in charge of Athens at the time, the veracity of this claim has been disputed over the years.

Who owns the Elgin Marbles?

After getting the sculptures and other artefacts brought over to Britain, Elgin was a part of a UK parliamentary inquiry in 1816. The inquiry looked into whether or not Elgin’s actions and ownership of the marbles were legal.

Once the parliament concluded it was legal, Elgin sold them to the British government. The Government then passed them into the trusteeship of the British Museum, where it has remained ever since.

What is the Elgin Marbles controversy?

In 1983, the Greek government officially asked the UK Government to return the Elgin Marbles back to Greece and went on to list the dispute with Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation).

The UK Government and the British Museum both declined Unesco’s offer to mediate discussions.

In 2021, Unesco asked the UK Government to escalate the matter to the intergovernmental level to resolve it.

Greece argues that the marble sculptures were obtained illegally and unethically and, given their exceptional cultural significance to Greece, it wants the Marbles to be displayed in the Acropolis Museum alongside other antiquities from Ancient Greece.

However, the UK Government and the British Museum say that the sculptures were legally acquired and that returning the Elgin Marbles would set a precedent, triggering people from other cultures to ask for their artefacts back, thus emptying the British Museum.

They have also argued that the British Museum allows the sculptures to be better viewed in the context of many other ancient cultures’ belongings, and that having been in Britain since 1807, the Marbles have become a part of British heritage.

Plus, they say, the sculptures Britain have cared for have been much better protected over the decades than the ones left back in Greece.

However, recent opinion polls have revealed that 53 per cent of the British public support sending the artefacts back to Greece.

Will the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles?

Currently, the Elgin Marbles remain at the British Museum while the discussions continue.

Back in June 2022, Mr Osborne said there was a “deal to be done” over sharing the Elgin Marbles with Greece.

And, in January of this year, the organisation said: “We’ve said publicly we’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and, as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing.”

However, in May, the newly re-elected Greek prime minister said they wouldn’t make any deals that included the word “loan” in them. Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Independent: “We will never recognise that these sculptures are owned, legally owned by the British Museum… But again, we have to be constructive, and we have to be innovative if a solution is to be found.”

The 1963 British Museum Act currently prohibits a full return of the artefacts. And, earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak commented: “The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”