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Will London return Parthenon friezes to Greece? | Culture | DW

Friezes originally decorated the upper outer wall of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis in Athens. It shows many figures and offerings to the goddess Athena during the procession at the great festival held in ancient Athens. Today part of the frieze is in the Acropolis Museum in Athens and most in the British Museum in London. Other parts belong to French, Italian, Austrian and German museums.

In Britain, 56 pieces of the Parthenon frieze are believed to have been legally acquired. Greece disputes that they were stolen. The dispute regarding this has been going on for a long time. But things could be moving now: talks have begun between the head of the British Museum – former British finance minister George Osborne – and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. If the outcome is favorable, parts of the London Frieze could now – after nearly 200 years – return to Athens in the future. Of course, it is not clear under what conditions.

At the British Museum, Greek marble sculptures are considered part of Britain’s cultural heritage

“Elgin Marbles” – A Robbery?

The marble sculptures depict scenes from Greek mythology. In Great Britain they are known as the “Elgin Marbles”, named after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. Elgin struck figures from the exterior of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens in the early 19th century. Making a deal with the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at the time, they were transported to Great Britain.

The current restructuring controversy is not without political explosion. The stakes are high for both parties: Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is running for re-election in 2023, is drawing on Fries as part of his campaign strategy. More recently, the Prime Minister spoke of “progress” and a “sense of dynamism”, while the British Museum refused to acknowledge that negotiations had taken place so far. That has now changed.

A cultural-political topic of more than 200 years

Were the marble sculptures legally acquired by England? “This question is at the heart of the restitution debate,” believes Alexander Herman, co-director of the Institute for Arts and Law and author of the 2021 book Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts. “This topic has been on the cultural agenda in Great Britain and in Greece for over 200 years,” Hermann told DW in 2021.

Spectators in front of the Parthenon figures

In the British Museum, the Parthenon figures have their own room

It is true that Greece was occupied by Turkey at the time Lord Elgin removed the sculptures. But shortly after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, there were demands to return various artifacts, Hermann knew.

The Vatican recently sent a clear signal on the Greek return dispute with Great Britain. At the end of December, Pope Francis decided to entrust three parts of the frieze to the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, Jerome II. These pieces have been displayed in the Vatican Museums since the 19th century. A Vatican statement said the handover was “a firm sign of the will to continue on the ecumenical path”. However, return is not a political act.

Legal barriers to return?

In contrast to Great Britain, the reform debate gained momentum in many European countries and even in the United States. The British Museum has been criticized for refusing all return requests. Meanwhile, Germany has begun returning the Benin bronze to Nigeria. In Germany, as in France, the recovery of objects from the colonial context is now a major cultural and political issue. London is under pressure.

But even if the British Museum decided to return the frieze pieces to Greece, it would first have to repeal a national law. Until now, the “British Museum Act” of 1963 prevented the British Museum from disposing of objects in its collection, as it defined the museum as a “national heritage”. Ultimately, the Parthenon frieze ended up only on loan to Greece. Athens is not enough.

A stone face with a beard

Pope Francis presented some Parthenon sculptures to the Archbishop of Athens.

A spokesman for Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said there were no plans to change the law: “Our position on this issue has not changed,” he told Euronews in December. “Decisions about the care and management of the collections are the responsibility of the museum and its trustees. The Parthenon sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and operationally independent of the government,” Sunak’s spokesperson added.

There is no end to the returning controversy in sight

Although both parties initially agreed to the loan: the dispute over the marble statues would continue. Greek officials say they will fight until they get full rights to the valuable sculptures.

“We reiterate our country’s firm position,” the Greek culture minister said in a press release Thursday evening. Greece will not recognize the British Museum’s “claimed Parthenon sculptures”. The sculptures are “the product of a theft”. DW’s requests for a statement have not yet been answered.

This article was adapted from English by Stephen Deage.