New York Times: As Europe returns artifacts, Britain stays silent

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The Parthenon Sculptures in London are probably the most famous controversial museum exhibits in the world, according to an article in the New York Times. However, the British government claims that the fate of the sculptures does not concern it, the publication points out.

New York Times: As Europe returns artifacts, Britain stays silent
Credit: Shutterstock

According to the NYT, in 1984, Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the opposition Labor Party in Britain, did something that few politicians have dared: he promised to return the Parthenon Sculptures. It is a “moral issue,” Kinnock told reporters during a visit to Athens. “The Parthenon without the marbles is like a smile that lacks a tooth,” he added. Kinnock’s comments made headlines at the time, but when he returned to London he found that few in his party shared his views – and even fewer among the Conservative members of Margaret Thatcher’s government.




Last year the issue of marbles returned to public discourse after the prolonged closure of the Greek rooms of the museum due to the coronavirus pandemic and maintenance work. He came back as activists across Europe protested to redress the historic injustices they describe. Again, however, the idea of ​​returning the sculptures to Athens seems to have little political support, as in the days of Kinok.

According to the New York Times, the official position of the British government is that it is not responsible for the fate of the marbles: this, he says, is a matter for the administrators of the British Museum, most of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly stated that the sculptures are an integral part of the museum’s mission to present world history.

Throughout 2021, other European governments announced recovery policies and returned various items. In April, Germany announced it would begin returning about 1,100 looted artifacts known as ‘Benin Bronze’ from its museums in Nigeria early next year. In June, the Belgian government agreed on a plan to transfer ownership of stolen items from its museums to African countries of origin. In October, French President Emmanuel Macron returned 26 looted items to Benin, fulfilling a 2017 commitment to return African art from the country’s museums.

However in Britain, whose museums are full of treasures from former conquests, the issue of restoration is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government nor the opposition Labor Party has issued a statement on the issue and there has been no debate on it in Parliament.

Activists say, according to the New York Times, that the government could take action on the Parthenon Sculptures if it so wished, setting the rules for major museums and often appointing their administrators.

In September, a UNESCO commission on the return of controversial artifacts said the marble dispute “is intergovernmental in nature and therefore the obligation to return the Parthenon marbles is clearly the responsibility of the UK government”. However, MPs insist that the issue is not in their hands, according to the American newspaper.




The British Museum’s board of directors has been chaired by George Osborne, a former Conservative MP who served as Britain’s finance minister from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to requests for an interview with the New York Times, but in an opinion piece. He told the Times of London earlier this month that the museum was “open to lending artifacts wherever they can find them and ensure their safe return”, including in Greece.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, also declined to be interviewed but said in an e-mail that the marbles help visitors “have an idea of ​​the world’s cultures and how they are connected over time”.

Janet Suzman, an actress and head of the British Commission for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said she hoped the change in attitude around the world about where African artefacts belonged would also affect views on marble.

However, with Osborne’s appointment, her hopes were dashed. “No one is assigned to the British Museum unless they swear at their mother’s grave that they will not return anything,” she said.

Kinnock said he was upset when he considered the return of the marbles. Change in Britain “will only happen with a different government that (…) will try to improve the UK’s perception of its history,” he said. “Then,” he added, “there will be a strong chance that our wonderful country will become Great Britain in 21st century terms.”

Source: New York Times, ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ via Kathimerini [January 20, 2022]

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