It’s Time For The British Museum To Return The Parthenon’s Sculptures To Greece
Taking another country’s treasures and then acting like you set the terms of the debate is a gross violation of everything a cultural institution should represent.
On my first trip to England, I stumbled into the British Museum. The visit was unexpected — I bumped into the place jet lagged and searching for coffee — which only added to the shock I felt encountering the institution’s treasures.
Floor after floor, the museum displayed some of the globe’s most precious objects. It had the Rosetta Stone. It had sculptures from Syria, similar to those ISIS destroyed. And in a separate wing, the museum showcased the Parthenon’s legendary sculptures. I couldn’t quite figure how these sculptures, core to Greece’s national identity, made it to the museum. It wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
Turns out, Greece would very much like those sculptures back, and the British Museum is putting up a pathetic fight to keep them. Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly called for the marbles to return, even offering artifacts that never left Greece in exchange. The British Museum’s leadership has rebuffed him with embarrassing excuses.
The British Museum has claimed the Parthenon sculptures were picked up from rubble (as if that would make a difference). It’s said they can’t be placed back on the original structure, that they’re better off in England as part of its worldwide collection, and that casts of the originals in Athens help provide “as full a picture as is now possible” of the sculptures. This is ridiculous.
When a country asks for its treasures back, you give them back. The British Museum admits its counterparts in Athens are “fully able to conserve, preserve and display the material in their care.” So its only reason for hanging on to the sculptures is greed.
The embarrassment continued this July, when the British Museum proposed a “Parthenon partnership, claiming it wanted “change the temperature of the debate.” As if there’s a debate to be had when you’re holding something that’s not yours.
58% of Britons support returning the Parthenon’s sculptures, yet British politicians and their institutions ignore their citizens’ wishes. Liz Truss refused to support returning the sculptures in her brief role as UK Prime Minister. If new PM Rishi Sunak wants to try not following in her footsteps, this would be a good place to break.
In August, I visited Athens for the first time and made sure to visit the Acropolis. The historic hilltop is still awe-inspiring. But that its most precious artifacts are held elsewhere, without Greece’s approval, is wrong.
To the British Museum: Return the Parthenon marbles. There’s no plausible reason to keep them. Make this right.