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What Is The Elgin Marbles Row About? Rishi Sunak Cancels Meeting With Greek Prime Minister

A man views the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum.
A man views the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum.

A man views the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum.

Rishi Sunak has cancelled his meeting with the prime minister of Greece as a diplomatic row exploded over the Elgin marbles.

The surprise move, first reported by the BBC, came a day after Kyriakos Mitsotakis repeated his country’s long-standing position that the treasures should be returned to the ancient Greek Parthenon temple.

What are the Elgin marbles?

Carved 2,500 years ago, the sculptures were brought to Britain in the 19th century after British ambassador Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens with permission from the Ottoman authorities, which had ruled the city for 400 years.

The collection consists of figures, a frieze and panels that now reside in the British Museum, which first received a formal request for the permanent return to Greece of all of the sculptures in the collection in 1983.

About half the surviving marble works are in London, and the rest in a purpose-built museum under the Acropolis in Athens.

The British Museum is unable to give up ownership of the sculptures under the terms of the 1963 British Museum Act, which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

Labour Party leader Keir Starme and prime minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis meet on Wednesday in London.
Labour Party leader Keir Starme and prime minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis meet on Wednesday in London.

Labour Party leader Keir Starme and prime minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis meet on Wednesday in London.

The museum has come under increasing pressure to reevaluate some of its artefacts, including the Benin Bronzes.

The bronzes were looted by a British military expedition in 1897 and are considered to be among Africa’s most culturally important artefacts.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, the former chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin marbles to be displayed in Greece.

Labour has indicated that it would not change the law, but that if elected the party would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the British Museum and the Greek government.

What has Greece said?

On the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, Greece’s prime minister argued a return was about “reunification” of the monument.

He said: “It’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum, do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way?

“Well, this is exactly what happened with the Parthenon sculptures and that is why we keep lobbying for a deal that would essentially be a partnership between Greece and the British Museum but would allow us to return the sculptures to Greece and have people appreciate them in their original setting.”

Bloomberg reported Mitsotakis saying in a statement sent by his office on Monday: “I express my annoyance for the fact that the British prime minister cancelled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was due to take place.

“Greece’s positions on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known. I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart as well, along with the major challenges of the international situation: Gaza, Ukraine, climate crisis, migration.”

What has Downing Street said?

A No. 10 spokesperson said: “The UK-Greece relationship is hugely important. From our work together in NATO, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration, to joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and war in Ukraine.”

The BBC reported a senior Conservative source saying: “It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.

“Our position is clear – the Elgin marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation.”

Before reports of the meeting’s cancellation, Downing Street on Monday pushed back against the Greek leader’s likening of the British Museum’s possession of the sculptures to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.

“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”

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