Well, well, well, it looks like the British Museum is finally admitting that it’s “involved in ‘constructive discussions'” with Greece over the return of some of the Parthenon marbles. Hmmm, I wonder what’s taken them so long? I mean, it’s not like these marble sculptures have been on display in the museum since 1832 after being controversially stripped from the Parthenon by the light-fingered Lord Elgin. Actually to be fair to him, he didn’t steal them. He just bought them for someone who had. I’m not sure what the Ottoman idiom for “fell off the back of a lorry” is.
But don’t get too excited, folks. It seems that these “constructive discussions” are still in their early stages and the two parties are “some distance apart.” In fact, a senior Greek official has even gone so far as to say “there is no such deal.” So we’ve probably got time to train a gerbil to whistle while we are waiting.
It’s no surprise that Greece wants the marbles back permanently, while the British Museum is only willing to lend them out. After all, the museum has made it clear that it has no intention of amending the British Museum Act, the law that prevents the museum from returning any of its collection permanently except in very limited circumstances. “We’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” the museum says. Oh, of course not. How could we possibly dismantle our precious collection and give back something that rightfully belongs to another country? If you start respecting other people’s rights there’s no telling where it will lead.
But don’t worry, the British Museum has a plan. It’s going to announce details of a £1bn modernisation plan called the Rosetta Project, which includes a “complete reimagination” of the museum and a major renovation of many of its galleries. And guess which galleries are expected to be prioritised for refurbishment? That’s right, the Parthenon galleries. How convenient. Maybe if we spruce them up a bit, Greece will be more willing to accept a temporary loan of the marbles instead of demanding their permanent return.
But let’s be real, a loan is not going to cut it. Just last month, the Vatican gave back three Parthenon sculptures from its collection to Greece, saying the donation was “a concrete sign of [Pope Francis’s] sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth.” It’s time for the British Museum to follow suit and do the right thing. We not be a world class military power any more. Brexit has undermined both our soft power and our financial power. We could still lead the world in class by putting right previous wrongs. The Parthenon marbles belong in Greece, not on display in London as part of some rotating exhibit. Nothing you can do to them will make them look better than they’ll look in their historic context in Athens. It’s time for the museum to stop dragging its feet and finally return these sculptures to their rightful home.