New endeavor for return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece

LONDON – Activists yesterday launched a fresh bid to persuade the British Museum to return the ancient sculptures known as the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles to Greece, saying even a loan would be a huge step forward. The activists, whose group is called Marbles Reunited, said Greece had suggested that the British Museum retain ownership of and control over the works but display them on a long-term loan at a new museum being built beneath the Acropolis in Athens. In return, they said, Greece would agree to lend other valuable antiquities to museums around Britain, including the British Museum in London. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said Britain had not yet received the proposal but was aware that it was on the way. The sculptures, considered among the most important artworks in the Western world, were created 2,500 years ago to adorn the Parthenon. Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, acquired the sculptures at the beginning of the 19th century and shipped them back to London, where they became part of the British Museum’s collection. The Marbles have been an irritant in relations between the two countries for years. The British Museum pieces represent about half of the remaining Parthenon sculptures and Greece wants to see the entire surviving work reunited, it hopes, in time for the Olympics Games Athens is hosting in August. «This is a win-win deal,» said former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, at a news conference held by Marbles Reunited. «I believe returning the Marbles in this Olympic year would be good for Greece, good for Britain and excellent for our Olympic bid.» Britain is seeking to win the 2012 Olympics for London and Cook said agreeing to the Greek plan could help create good will toward London’s bid. He compared the Marbles’ division between London and Athens to the hypothetical fragmentation of the statue of British military hero Lord Nelson that sits atop a column in Trafalgar Square. «It’s as if someone had hacked off Nelson’s head and taken it abroad, and we were left with the stomach and the legs,» he said. «Does anyone imagine we would rest in these circumstances until the statue was restored?» Peter Chegwyn, Marbles Reunited’s campaign director, said it could take as long as a year to organize the transfer of the sculptures, making it unlikely they could be moved in time for the Athens Olympics. But he urged the museum to commit this year to moving them. The museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, rejected that idea, saying in a statement that the London galleries were «the best possible place for the sculptures from the Parthenon in (the British Museum’s) collections to be on display.» «The British Museum is a truly universal museum of humanity, accessible to 5 million visitors from around the world every year,» he said. «Only here can the worldwide significance of the Parthenon sculptures be fully grasped.» Ellen De Wachter, a museum spokeswoman, said officials had not received a loan request from the Greek government and declined to comment on whether they would consider one. Toby Sargent, a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said it was up to the museum to decide whether to lend out the works and the government would not urge it to do so. Sargent said no talks were currently scheduled but Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell is willing to meet her Greek counterpart, Evangelos Venizelos. Marbles Reunited released a poll showing that 81 percent of Britons supported the Greek exchange plan while 13 percent disapproved. Seventy-seven percent said the British Museum should make a commitment this year to return the Marbles, the survey found. Pollsters from the survey firm ICM questioned 1,002 Britons, with a margin of error of three percentage points.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.