The British Museum on the defensive in the dispute with Greece over the Parthenon marbles

Analysis. The rooms dedicated to the Parthenon marbles remain a must in the British Museum, a London institution with 5 million annual visitors. Clusters of college students in uniforms, tourists riveted to their audioguide: the huge gallery exhibiting the friezes and sculptures of the pediments of the most famous of Greek temples, on the hill of the Acropolis, in Athens, is always crowded.

These 2,500-year-old sculptures were removed from the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena at the beginning of the 19th century.e century, when Greece was still under Ottoman rule, on the orders of the British diplomat Lord Elgin, who sold them to the British Museum in 1816. Since becoming independent in 1832, Greece has always disputed this ownership and claimed the return of the marbles, which it considers an inalienable part of its history. Their place is in Athens, argue the Greek authorities, in a magnificent museum built at the foot of the Acropolis especially to exhibit them and opened in 2009.

Until now, the British Museum has resisted all these pressures, sticking to its version: the marbles belong to it, their removal having been authorized by the Ottoman administration. The institution also shelters behind a British law, the British Museum Act of 1963, which forbids him to sell his works, except in exceptional circumstances. But public opinion is changing, other institutions in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Western world are multiplying restitutions. The status quo becomes difficult to maintain.

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Call for a “new partnership”

Arrived at the head of the British Museum in October 2021, George Osborne, 51, former finance minister of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, began serious discussions with Athens in 2022. This ex-supporter of budgetary rigor cultivating an image of modernizer would even be very close to an agreement with Athens on a ” cultural exchange “, with long-term loans, British media reported. Present in London in December, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was also optimistic, believing that the return of the marbles was ” possible “.

The British Museum has “publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece” and confirmed discussions “with everyone, including the Greek government”while excluding “to dismantle [sa] great collection ». The British government ruled out any amendments to the British Museum Act. Athens, for its part, is sticking to its position: a long-term loan is not satisfactory, the country wants to recover ownership of the marbles.

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