UK primed to hand Elgin Marbles in British Museum back to Greece

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A new body, led by a former Conservative culture minister is looking to return the so-called Elgin Marbles to Greece. Lord Vaizey, the former MP for Wantage and Didcot will use the 40th anniversary of the 1983 Heritage Act to bring forward a motion before the House of Lords to debate “contested heritage”. These marbles, once at Greece’s Parthenon, was removed in the early 19th Century by the Scottish soldier and diplomat, Lord Elgin, and are now kept at the British Museum. The 1983 National Heritage Act restricted museums from disposing of objects from their collections. Despite the debate, the Government has said that it has no intention of changing the law. 

This debate comes amidst growing calls for museums around the country to return cultural objects in their collections to their countries of origin, some museums and organisations have called for the act to be amended or replaced. Speaking to the BBC ahead of the debate, Lord Vaizey said he is confident “a deal is within reach”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “The British Museum is prevented by law from removing objects from its collections, except in some narrow circumstances. The Government has no plans to change this act.”

In a statement, the British Museum said: “We will loan the sculptures, as we do many other objects, to those who wish to display them to the public around the world, provided they will look after them and return them.

“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.”

These sculptures, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, are one of the most high-profile examples of a major debate taking place on whether museums should return items stolen or looted back to their countries of origin.

While Lord Elgin claimed to have removed the sculptures with an official firman (permission) from the central government of the then Ottoman ruler of Greece, no such firman has been found in archives, leading to many disputing Elgin’s claim. 

Now, a new advisory body is lobbying for “win-win” deal, based on a new poll that showed that a majority of Britons supported sending the Marbles home.

The survey of nearly 2,000 people, commissioned by the Parthenon Project, shows that while 16 percent of Britons think the Parthenon Sculptures should stay in the UK, 54 percent believe they should be returned.

The Parthenon Project also found that among those surveyed who voted Conservative in 2019, 44 percent believed the sculptures should go to Greece and 28 percent had no preference.

Lord Vaizey, new Parthenon Project chair, said: “I am confident that a deal is within reach. Support for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens from the public, and in particular Conservative-leaning voters, is clear.”

He added it would be “in the best interests of the British Museum and UK Government to begin meaningful engagement on this issue”.

Museums are facing growing pressure to return many looted artefacts back to their original countries, with some museums, including the V&A, run by Tristram Hunt, calling for the Heritage act to be amended or replaced.

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The British Museum has said that it is restricted from returning items from its collection, like the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, by another act, the British Museum Act of 1963, that has similar terms to the Heritage Act.

Meanwhile, smaller museums in the UK are not bound by the same restrictions. London’s Horniman Museum recently announced it would be returning its collection of Benin Bronzes that were looted by British forces in the late 19th century.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly called for the Marbles to be returned, most recently saying: “At a time when Truss will be looking to build her credibility and when the UK is sort of cornered in terms of its overall image after the (Queen’s) funeral, it will be a fantastic gesture and that’s what I’ll tell her.”

Actor Stephen Fry said he was “delighted” to be supporting the Parthenon Project, adding: “I firmly believe that we now have a real chance to find a solution that benefits both Britain and Greece.

“It is time to put our energies into an exchange involving a revolving collection of never-seen-in-London before artefacts populating the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum, whilst the sculptures are returned to Greece.”

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