Number 10 rules out law change amid Parthenon Marbles talks - Museums Association

Number 10 rules out law change amid Parthenon Marbles talks

British Museum reportedly in advanced negotiations with Greece about returning the sculptures
Parthenon Marbles
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

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has ruled out changing legislation that would allow the British Museum to permanently repatriate the Parthenon Marbles, amid reports that the institution is close to reaching a deal with Greece to resolve the decades-long stalemate over the 2,500-year-old sculptures.

A spokesman for the prime minister told reporters this week that there were no plans to amend the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits the museum from deaccessioning objects with limited exceptions.

The British Museum has made clear that it will “operate within the law” in any Parthenon partnership.

The British Museum’s chair George Osborne has reportedly held a series of secret talks with Greek government officials in recent months, culminating in a meeting with the country's prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week.

The Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported over the weekend that the two parties are close to making a deal that could see the sculptures displayed at the purpose-built Acropolis Museum in Athens as early as spring 2023.

Details are unclear on what form the deal could take but it may involve a long-term loan arrangement that would involve Greek treasures travelling to the British Museum in return. The loan option has previously been rejected by the Greek government, which maintains that the sculptures were acquired illegitimately and has pushed for full reunification.

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Following their meeting, Osborne and Mitsotakis gave a joint address to the London School of Economics, where Mitsotakis said the return of the sculptures was “possible”.

He said: “A win-win solution can be found that will result in the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece, while at the same time taking into account concerns that the British Museum may have."

A spokesman for the British Museum said: “The British Museum has publicly called for a new Parthenon Partnership with Greece and we’ll talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to take that forward. As the chair of trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.

"But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”

The UK government spokesman said museums would need to “justify any decisions made to the public” on the repatriation or reinterpretation of their collections, following a number of recent, high profile cases, including the Horniman Museum’s repatriation of its Benin bronze holdings and the Wellcome Collection’s decision to close its Medicine Man exhibition.

“The public will make a judgment based on voting with their feet on whether they think [museums] have got the right balance,” the government spokesman told the Guardian.

The Museums Association’s director, Sharon Heal, has welcomed developments in this area, saying “repatriation of museum objects can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act that can help heal past wrongs”.

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