British Museum opens door to Parthenon deal with Greece - Museums Association

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British Museum opens door to Parthenon deal with Greece

Deputy director calls for ‘active partnership’ after decades-long stalemate
Marble relief (Block XLVII) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. Athens, 438–432 BC
Marble relief (Block XLVII) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. Athens, 438–432 BC © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has signalled that it is willing to negotiate a deal with Greece that could bring an end to one of the world’s longest-running cultural disputes.

The museum’s deputy director Jonathan Williams has suggested that the sculptures could return to Greece as part of an active partnership that would see Greek treasures loaned to the UK in return.

He told the Sunday Times: “What we are calling for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece […] I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found.

“There are many wonderful things we’d be delighted to borrow and lend. That’s what we do,” he said.  

Although Williams emphasised that the “sculptures are an absolutely integral part of the British Museum”, he said the museum was keen to “change the temperature of the debate”.

Williams' comments follow an intervention by London mayor Sadiq Khan last week, when he called on the UK Government and British Museum to “stop burying their heads in the sand" and enter into a dialogue with Greece.

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British Museum chairman George Osborne also announced recently that “there is a deal to be done”.

The Sunday Times reports that relations between officials in the two countries have thawed in recent months. “The atmosphere has changed,” Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, told the newspaper. “With goodwill we can find a way forward for both parties.”

However, the path forward is unlikely to be straightforward, with both parties still at odds over the ownership of the marbles and Greece pushing for permanent reunification. The UK Government says the return of the sculptures is a matter for the British Museum’s trustees. The museum has rejected Greece’s claim that the marbles were removed illegitimately, saying the manner in which they were acquired was “entirely legal”.

The British Museum has not changed its official stance on the marbles. A spokesman said the institution is willing to loan the sculptures to those who wish to display them “provided they will look after them and return them”.

He said: “The Parthenon sculptures are beautiful works of art which are loved and admired world-wide. We believe that sharing them with the public in as rich a range of contexts as possible should lie at the heart of these conversations. The public is failed when conversations are limited to a legalistic and adversarial context.

“We will loan the sculptures, as we do many other objects, to those who wish to display them to other public around the world, provided they will look after them and return them.”

The spokesman said the sculptures are “an integral part of a collection that enables the public to explore this vast arc of history, helping them understand how the modern world is still influenced by these great ancient civilisations”.

He added: “Deepening public access and understanding, creating new ways and opportunities for collections to be shared and understood right across the world, and forging connections between the present and the past, remain at the core of what the British Museum seeks to achieve.”

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