British Museum ‘rules out’ returning Elgin Marbles to Greece after country demands UK opens negotiations

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to give back statues if he becomes prime minister

Emma Snaith
Sunday 27 January 2019 07:00 GMT
Greece wants its treasured Elgin marbles back from the British

The director of the British Museum has appeared to rule out returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece after its government demanded Britain open negotiations over their return last year.

The 2,500-year-old marble sculptures were removed from the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis in Athens by the Ottoman ambassador Lord Elgin in the early 1800s.

Lord Elgin sold the marbles to the British government, who passed them on to the British Museum in 1817 where they remain one of its most prized exhibits.

Debate over where the sculptures should be located has raged for more than 200 years, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledging to return them to Greece if he becomes prime minister.

In August, Greek culture minister Lydia Koniordou invited UK officials to meetings in Greece to discuss the statues’ return in the midst of Brexit talks as Britain sought allies around Europe.

In an interview with Ta Nea, Greece’s daily newspaper, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer said: “The Trustees of the British Museum feel the obligation to preserve the collection in its entirety, so that things that are part of this collection remain part of this collection.”

Asked if he thinks the Greek people are right to want the Parthenon sculptures back, he told the newspaper: “I can certainly understand that the Greeks have a special and passionate relationship with this part of their cultural heritage.

“Yes, I understand that there is a desire to see all of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens.”

The other half of the Parthenon Sculptures are currently in the Acropolis Museum in Greece.

For several decades, Greece has called for the reunification of the statues and has sent several formal requests, threatened legal action and proposed solutions such as mediation by Unesco.

Supporters of the Greek position say although Lord Elgin said he had the permission of officials of the ruling Ottoman Empire to take the sculptures, the empire was a foreign force and had no right to let the artefacts go.

When Mr Fischer was asked about Mr Corbyn’s pledge to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece if he became prime minister, he said: “I think that this is Mr Corbyn’s personal view on the question, that you take note of.

“Obviously, that is not the stance and the view of the Trustees of the Museum.”

Asked by Ta Nea if he would accept that Greece is the legal owner of the Parthenon Sculptures, he replied: “No, I would not. The objects that are part of the collection of the British Museum are in the fiduciary ownership of the Trustees of the Museum.”

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Defenders of keeping the statues in Britain have argued returning them would pave the way for requests from other coutries for items in British museums to be returned.

In a statement, the British Museum said: “Hartwig Fischer was stating the long-standing position of the British Museum. We believe there is a great public benefit in being able to see these wonderful objects in the context of a world collection.

“The museum lends extensively across the world, and some loans are long-term but not indefinite.”

Polling by YouGov conducted in 2017 suggested the British public mostly back the marbles’ return, with 55 per cent saying the statues should go back to Greece and 21 per cent saying they should remain in Britain.

Additional reporting by PA

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