LONDON – In 1984, Neil Kinnock, then leader of Britain’s opposition Labor Party, did something that few politicians here dare: he pledged to return the Parthenon marbles.
Kinnock told reporters during a visit to Athens that the classical sculptures, often called the Elgin Marbles after the British aristocracy who removed them from the Parthenon in the early 1800s and brought them to London, were “a moral issue”. Was. “The Parthenon without a stone is like a smile with a missing tooth,” he said.
Kinnock’s comments made headlines at the time, but when he returned to London, he found some members of his party shared his views, let alone the Conservative members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. He did not pursue this idea.
Most of his successors, including Tony Blair, insisted that the marbles should be kept in the British Museum as one of its features.
Last week, the sculptures returned to public view after the museum’s Greek galleries were closed for a long time due to the coronavirus pandemic and maintenance work. They reappeared as activists across Europe struggle to rectify perceived historical injustices, yet the idea of returning the stone to Athens has as little political support here as it did in Kinnock’s day.
The official position of the British government is that it is not responsible for the fate of the Marbles: this is a matter for the Trustees of the British Museum, a group largely appointed by the Prime Minister who has repeatedly stated that the statues should be part of the Museum. Integral part is the mission of telling world history.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson – an Oxford Classics graduate who likes to quote Ancient Greek – has said for years that the Marbles are in London. In 2012, when he was mayor of London, he wrote to a Greek official that he had “reflected deeply over many years” on the statues, and, as much as he sympathized with the Greek case, it was “a serious and irreversible would be harmed” “if they left the British Museum.
When Johnson met with Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, last month, he reiterated the government’s position that anything to do with the marbles was a question for the trustees of the British Museum, not his.
During 2021, as other European governments announced restoration policies and gave back commodities, Britain’s buck-passing on marbles seemed increasingly out of step.
Yet in Britain, a once-colonial and trading power whose museums are filled with treasures from its former possessions, restoration is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government nor the opposition Labor Party has issued a policy statement on the subject and there has been no debate on the issue in Parliament.
Current and former British MPs said there were several reasons for the lack of action. Kinnock, 79, said in an email that the government and most of the British public “had a tendency to cling to (or yearn for) the real or imagined past.”
The returning artifacts will be seen as “awake,” Kinnock said, and the government considers it “like vampires treat sunlight.”
John Hayes, a Conservative Party legislator and chairman of an influential right-wing group in parliament called Common Sense, said Belgium, France and Germany were returning items to their former colonies to improve relations, but Britain’s He had better relations with his former empire. Property
He said that by doing nothing on the restoration, British MPs were becoming “more sensible” than their continental counterparts, adding that the belief that all goods should be returned to their countries of origin was “a ridiculous situation”. which had no logical end.
By tradition, the UK government does not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the museums it funds. But the current government has recently been under pressure to shape its policies. Last year, Oliver Dowden, the country’s minister of culture at the time, wrote to museum leaders, asking them to “maintain and explain” the disputed monuments, rather than removing them from view, such as statues of slave owners.
Dowden clarified his views on the restoration, telling a British TV station in September that the Benin Bronze collection at the British Museum “lives properly”.
Activists say that if the government wants, it can take action on the Parthenon marbles. Artemis Papthanasio, a member of a committee under Greece’s Ministry of Culture that works for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said that since the UK government sets the rules for major museums and often appoints its own trustees, it includes must contain. “They just don’t want to take responsibility,” she said.
In September, a UNESCO Committee on the Return of Disputed Artifacts stated that the dispute over the marbles “has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon statues rests entirely on the United Kingdom government.”
Yet lawmakers insist that the matter is out of their hands, although, under a 1963 law that governs the British Museum, trustees can remove objects from the collection only if they are “to retain ineligible” and “can be disposed of without damages” in the interest of the students. ,
Samantha Knights, a lawyer working on reinstatement cases, said the law was so vague it could have given the trustees some leeway. When Elgin took the marbles, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire; He had permission to excavate in the Parthenon, although it is not clear whether he had permission to remove anything. Knights said that the Trustees “could decide that because of the way the Parthenon Marbles were acquired, and the history of the Greek government’s very powerful arguments for their return, they are now ‘unfit to be retained’, ” He said. ,
“But whether the trustees would be willing to come to that conclusion is another question,” Knights said.
The trustees of the British Museum appear to be in no mood to give back.
Since September, the board has been led by former Conservative MP George Osborne, who was Britain’s finance chief from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article, but earlier in an opinion piece in the Times of London. In the month, he said the museum is open to “lending our artifacts anywhere that can take good care of them and ensure their safe return”, including Greece. The Greek government had previously rejected offers to borrow the Parthenon marbles for their permanent return.
British Museum director Hartwig Fischer also declined to be interviewed, but said in an emailed statement that the marbles helped visitors “gain an insight into the world’s cultures and how they connect over time”. The museum’s website states that the sculptures express the influence between “Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman” civilizations, arguing that they are best presented within this context.
Janet Suzman, an actor and chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said she hopes changing attitudes related to African artworks around the world will influence views on marbles. In November, a poll by YouGov, a polling organization, said that 59 percent of the British public believed marbles to be from Greece.
But Osborne’s appointment had left him “very little hopeful” about the cause, Suzman said. “No one is appointed to the British Museum unless you swear at your mother’s grave that you will not return anything,” she said.
Former Labor leader Kinnock said he felt “rather disappointed” when he contemplated the prospect of marbles returning. Other European governments had their own reasons for returning the disputed items, stating: Germany, for example, had a “markedly different” attitude towards the Restoration, perhaps due to national reflections on its roles in World War II and its “comparative brevity”. Empire.
“Change in Britain will only come with a different government, which will try to improve Britain’s perception of its history in various ways,” he said. “Then,” he said, “there will be a strong possibility that our laudable country in the 21st century will be Great Britain.”