The ornaments, which come from the Parthenon, have been in the British Museum since the early 19th century, and that does not help the relationship between Greece and the British. The friezes and metopes were then shipped from Athens to London by Lord Elgin, then envoy of the British to the Ottoman sultan. Money worries forced the art-loving aristocrat to sell them to the British state. It was decided to exhibit them in The British Museum, the traditional home of colonial treasures.
Lord Elgin’s action was immediately controversial and the poet Lord Byron was disgraced. He considered it an art theft, which has always been the view of the Greeks. The British have traditionally claimed that the Elgin Marbles – also referred to as the Parthenon Marbles – were brought to safety at the time. After all, the Greek Revolution of Independence was imminent. The security argument has been used to defend the presence of other colonial showpieces on British soil.
Certainly in the Greek case, this defense has become increasingly weak. The Acropolis Museum can take great care of these priceless sculptures. Since he was appointed chairman of the museum last fall, former Conservative finance minister George Osborne appears to have had confidential talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsorakis, including at the Greek embassy in London. According to the Greek journalist Yannis Andritsopoulos, an agreement is in sight.
A cultural collaboration is said to be on the way, reuniting the 2,500-year-old Elgin Marbles in the Acropolis Museum with other Parthenon friezes, while treasures from that museum that have never been outside Greece are displayed in The British Museum. The British Museum declined to comment on the news. Museum director Neil McGregor has always maintained that the global significance of the Elgin Marbles can only be emphasized in this freely accessible site.
Earlier this year, the Greek ambassador in London said that restitution is perfectly possible now that the Institute for Digital Archeology is able to make exact copies. This is what the leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson suggested in his book Who owns history: Elgin’s loot and the case for returning plundered treasure. As a student of the classics, Boris Johnson argued in 1986 for the return of the Greek heritage to ‘the landscape of Achilles’. As prime minister, however, he was against it.
Other countries are also knocking on the door of the British museum. For example, Egypt believes that the Rosetta Stone belongs in the Great Egyptian Museum. Nigeria longs for the return of the Bronze Statues from Benin, which were taken from the then Kingdom of Benin at the end of the 19th century. The Horniman Museum in London recently announced that it would return these images. The British royal house also has such statues, but as far as Nigeria is concerned, the king is allowed to keep them because the royal statues were a gift, not a robbery.