Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition leader Keir Starmer engaged in a heated debate on Wednesday over Sunak’s decision not to meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday while he was in London.
“We’re always happy to talk about important topics like illegal migration and strengthening security with our allies but when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future but rather to grandstand and relive issues of the past, it was inappropriate,” said Sunak in Parliament today when explaining why he canceled the meeting.
The Greek Prime Minister had hoped to discuss the return of the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures from ancient Greece currently housed in the British Museum.
The Elgin Marbles—a collection of sculptures from ancient Greece—are just a few of thousands of items amassed by the British during the days of its global empire. But recent years have seen more countries demand the U.K. repatriate items: Nigeria is asking for its Benin Bronzes back, China says its cultural relics must be handed over, and Greece wants its sculptures.
“We feel that the sculptures belong to Greece and that they were essentially stolen,” Mitsotakis told the BBC.
Instead, Mitsotakis met with U.K. opposition leader Keir Starmer on Monday, a move that is rarely welcomed by those in government.
“In an effort to hide from his failures, the Prime Minister spent this week arguing about an ancient relic that only a tiny minority of the British public have any interest in,” Starmer said in Parliament today. “[Greece] is one of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration, but instead of using that meeting to discuss these serious issues, he tried to humiliate him and canceled at the last minute.”
While both Suank and Starmer have opposed a permanent return of the Elgin Marbles, they have laid out different approaches for how to deal with the issue.
What are the Elgin Marbles?
The Elgin Marbles were created between 447 and 432 B.C. as architectural decor for the Parthenon—the temple of the Greek goddess Athena—on the Acropolis in Athens.
The sculpture collection in the British Museum consists of 15 metopes (sculpted relief panels), 17 pedimental figures, and 247 ft. of the original 524-ft. Parthenon frieze which shows a procession held during Athena’s birthday.
How did they end up in British possession?
During the early 19th century, at a time when Greece was under Ottoman control, an aristocrat named Thomas Bruce—more popularly known as Lord Elgin—was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Elgin had sought to improve the level of artistic appreciation in Great Britain then, and so he had a plan to create drawings and plaster casts from Athenian architecture at his own expense, according to British historian William St. Clair’s book Lord Elgin and the Marbles.
Elgin eventually received a permit to do so from Ottoman authorities, as well as “take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or sculptures thereon.” Debate remains over whether or not the document exists and is legally binding.
From 1801 to 1805, Elgin and his team of artists removed about half of the remaining sculptures in the Parthenon—as well as other architectural decor across the Acropolis. It took a series of shipments to send all of the Elgin Marbles to England. A U.K. Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 ruled he had acquired them legally, and the collection was sold to the British government for some £35,000.
The sculptures were then transferred to the British Museum by an Act of Parliament later that year.
How has Greece demanded for the Elgin Marbles?
While Greece has demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles since the country's independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the last four decades have seen a slew of public relations and diplomacy offensives from Athens to regain them.
In the early 1980s, Greek minister for culture Melina Mercouri launched a campaign calling for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens. In 1983, she even met with the British Museum’s then-director, David Wilson, to demand the sculptures’ return. That year, the first formal request for restitution was filed to the British government.
In 2009, Athens opened the Acropolis Museum, in part to dispel arguments from the British that they would have nowhere to house the Elgin Marbles safely. The British Museum's public call to help to locate over 2,000 lost artifacts earlier this year also prompted Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni to question if the safety arguments holds.
Talks between Greece and the British Museum have been ongoing since November 2021, according to the New York Times, mainly between Kitsotakis and former U.K. finance minister George Osborne, who is now chair of the British Museum.
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Do the British want to return the Elgin Marbles?
The 1963 British Museum Act bans the museum from parting with any items in its collection. Sunak has also repeatedly said that he would not change British law to allow the Parthenon sculptures to leave the museum.
Under this law, however, the museum’s trustees may lend items in its collection for public exhibition, even outside the U.K.
Conservative lawmakers have long rejected any sort of removal from the British Museum’s collection. But Starmer, who polls suggest will become the next Prime Minister when an election is called by January 2025, has said he would not oppose a temporary loan.
Public support for the repatriation is high, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Parthenon Project, a campaign to return the sculptures to Athens, found that 64% of polled British were in favor of returning the sculptures if Greece would lend other artifacts to British museums. Some 52% are also in favor of a return without conditions.
On its website, the British Museum says “constructive discussions” for a partnership with Greece on the Parthenon sculptures are ongoing.
Correction, Nov. 28
The original version of this story misstated the name of a Greek minister for culture in the 1980s. Her name was Melina Mercouri, not Melinda.
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