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The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum in London. Alamy Stock Photo
Explainer

Why has a diplomatic row erupted between Britain and Greece over the Parthenon Marbles?

Rishi Sunak unexpectedly cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis after he called for the sculptures to be returned to Greece.

A DIPLOMATIC ROW has erupted between the British and Greek governments in the last 48 hours over the British Museum’s holding of the Parthenon Marbles. 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unexpectedly cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis after he called for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Greece. 

Mitsotakis was offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead but turned that down, with a source saying that he and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at an apparent sudden cancellation.

A UK Cabinet minister said it was a “matter of regret” that Mitsotakis did not agree to meet Dowden.

What are the Parthenon Marbles?

The Parthenon Marbles, known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, are a collection of Ancient Greek sculptures which once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

The majority of the sculptures are believed to have been created in the 5th century BC.

In 1801, the sculptures were removed from the Parthenon at the direction of British diplomat Thomas Bruce, also known as Lord Elgin. He was the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at the time. 

visitors-to-the-british-museum-view-the-elgin-marbles-london-uk Visitors to the British Museum viewing the Parthenon Marbles. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

According to the British Museum’s website, Elgin “successfully petitioned the authorities to be able to draw, measure and remove figures”. 

“He was granted a permit (firman), and between 1801 and 1805 acting under the oversight of the relevant authorities, Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon,” the website states. 

The sculptures have been on display in the British Museum in London since 1817.

The British Museum’s collection currently totals at least 8 million objects, with around 80,000 on display.

The museum has come under increasing pressure to reevaluate some of its artefacts, many of which were taken in places that were then under British colonial rule.

This includes the Benin Bronzes, which were looted by a British military expedition in 1897. They are considered to be among Africa’s most culturally important artefacts.

Egypt has also called for the return of the Rosetta Stone, arguably the museum’s most famous artefact.

The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was tied up in the imperial battles between Britain and France. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s military occupation of Egypt, French scientists uncovered the stone in 1799 in the northern town of Rashid, known by the French as Rosetta.

the-elgin-marbles-at-the-british-museum-london-england-uk The Parthenon Marbles, or Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and over a dozen other antiquities were handed over to the British under the terms of an 1801 surrender deal between the generals of the two sides.

Questions of ownership and how historical artefacts have found their way to museums are being confronted in many countries, including Ireland, where the National Museum of Ireland has acknowledged that some of its collections acquired by Irish people working in the British empire “do not reflect contemporary collecting practice or ethics”.

What has the Greek government said?

Greece has long claimed that the Parthenon Sculptures were illegally acquired during a period of foreign occupation, while British officials have rebuffed repeated demands for their return.

A formal request for the permanent return to Greece of all of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum’s collection was first made in 1983. There have been various meetings and discussions since then.

However, the museum’s governing legislation, the British Museum Act 1963, prevents it from permanently removing objects from its collections, with only a few exceptions.

Speaking in March, Rishi Sunak said that there were “no plans” to change the law over the sculptures.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, the former UK chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the marbles to be displayed in Greece.

There has been speculation this could involve some form of loan arrangement.

On Sunday, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared on BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme. 

Asked where the Parthenon Sculptures should be, Mitsotakis said: “I think the answer is very clear. They do look better in the Acropolis Museum, a state-of-the-art museum that was built for that purpose.

“This is not in my mind an ownership question, this is a reunification argument, where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument?

It’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum, do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way?

“Well, this is exactly what happened with the Parthenon Sculptures and that is why we keep lobbying for a deal that would essentially be a partnership between Greece and the British Museum but would allow us to return the sculptures to Greece and have people appreciate them in their original setting.”

What has the British government said?

In response, Rishi Sunak appeared to cancel his planned meeting with Mitsotakis hours before it was due to take place. 

This morning, British Transport Secretary Mark Harper rejected the assertion that it amounted to a snub to Mitsotakis.

“The Deputy Prime Minister offered to meet the Greek prime minister today and it proved not possible to make that happen,” Harper told BBC Breakfast.

“That’s a matter of regret. That offer was made. But the Government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”

Asked whether it was a snub, he told Sky News: “The Prime Minister wasn’t able to meet the Greek prime minister. He was offered a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, which proved not to be possible for him to take up. So, I don’t think I’d characterise it the way you have.

“Discussions continue between our governments about important matters.”

Mitsotakis shared a statement expressing his dismay that Sunak had cancelled the meeting, stating: “Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

In a statement this afternoon, Downing Street said that Sunak decided it would “not be productive” to hold a meeting with his Greek counterpart after it was felt a reassurance not to use the visit to focus on the Parthenon Marbles was “not adhered to”.

Sunak’s official spokesman told reporters: “The UK and Greece relationship is hugely important, from our work together in Nato, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration and joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine.

“When requesting a meeting with the Prime Minister this week, the Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures, which would only serve to distract from those important issues I just outlined.”

Given those assurances were not adhered to, the Prime Minister felt it would not be productive to hold a meeting dominated by that issue, rather than the important challenges facing Greek and British people.

“The Deputy Prime Minister was available to meet the Greek prime minister to discuss the wider topics and we are disappointed the prime minister opted not to take this meeting.”

Downing Street also said it felt the issue of the Parthenon Marbles has “cast a shadow” over the UK-Greece relationship and wanted talks to take place in private.

Asked whether it looked petty for Sunak to allow the marbles row to get in the way of talks on key issues such as migration, the spokesman said: “We understand and have heard on a number of occasions Greece’s position on the marbles.

“They are welcome and able to make those positions known to us in private, as they have done before.

“It is our view that for far too long constant attempts to relitigate in public the long settled issue of the ownership of the marbles has cast a shadow over an otherwise productive relationship with Greece and that those conversations are best had in private.

“Those were the assurances that were provided to us in advance of this meeting. Those assurances were not adhered to and you saw the subsequent action that was taken.”

Yesterday, Sunak’s official spokesman reiterated that the British government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

With reporting from the Press Association

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