The prime minister of Greece was expected to repeat demands for the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles in a meeting with UK prime minister Boris Johnson today.
Ahead of his visit to Downing Street, Kyriakos Mitsotakis indicated that he planned to raise the issue with Johnson directly.
At the 75th anniversary dinner for Unesco last week, Mitsotakis said the time was right for the marbles to be returned and urged the UK to enter negotiations. He said: “This year marks the bicentennial of the start of Greece’s War of Independence. No time could be better for the return of the section that is missing and the reuniting of the Parthenon marbles in Greece, their country of origin.”
Mitsotakis has said his government would be willing to loan other cultural artefacts to the British Museum as part of a deal to break the deadlock over the marbles. He told the Daily Telegraph prior to today’s meeting: “Our position is very clear. The marbles were stolen in the 19th century, they belong in the Acropolis Museum and we need to discuss this issue in earnest.
“I am sure that if there was a willingness on the part of the government to move we could find an arrangement with the British Museum in terms of us sending abroad cultural treasures on loan, which have never left the country.”
He added: “It would be a fantastic statement by what Boris calls ‘Global Britain’ if they were to move on this and look at it through a completely different lens.”
Earlier this year, Unesco ramped up pressure on the UK when its International Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property issued a resolution urging the government to revisit its stance on the Parthenon marbles, recognising that the issue “is of an intergovernmental nature”.
The Unesco resolution also acknowledged concerns about the conditions in which the marbles are being kept at the British Museum, where a leaking roof delayed the reopening of the Greek galleries earlier this year. The marbles were last accessible to the public before the Covid lockdown of January 2021.
The Unesco resolution is at odds with the UK Government, which maintains that the British Museum operates independently of government and the decision is a matter for trustees alone.
Outlining their position on the Parthenon marbles, the trustees of the British Museum said: “Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered. The Trustees firmly believe that there's a positive advantage and public benefit in having the sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.”
A statement on the British Museum website says: “The trustees want to strengthen existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures directly between institutions, not on a government-to-government basis.”
Referring to the closure of the Greek galleries, a British Museum spokeswoman said: “The museum is an historic and listed building and there are ongoing infrastructure assessments across the site. We have a team of specialists who make regular checks across the museum to monitor and ensure appropriate management of risks to the collection. The care of the collection and the safety of our visitors and staff are our utmost priority.
“The essential works being undertaken are part of a programme of building maintenance and conservation which will help enable future works on the museum estate. Alongside these essential repairs, we are developing a strategic masterplan to transform the British Museum for the future. It will involve actively renovating our historic buildings and estate, improving our visitor experience and undertaking an ambitious redisplay of the collection in the years to come.”
The marbles were brought to the UK from Athens in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, whose authorities gave him permission to remove them from the ruins of the Parthenon. Some historians have argued that the deal had no legal standing.
The British Museum says Elgin's actions were thoroughly investigated by a parliamentary select committee in 1816 and found to be “entirely legal”.