As Europe Returns Artifacts, Britain Stays Silent on the Parthenon Marbles

LONDON — In 1984, Neil Kinnock, then leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, did something few politicians here have dared: He pledged to return the Parthenon Marbles.

Those classical sculptures, often called the Elgin Marbles after the British aristocrat who removed them from the Parthenon in the early 1800s and brought them to London, were “a moral issue,” Kinnock told reporters during a visit to Athens. “The Parthenon without the marbles is like a smile with a missing tooth,” he said.

Kinnock’s comments made headlines at the time, but when he returned to London, he found that few in his party shared his views, let alone Conservative members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. He didn’t push the idea.

Most of his successors, including Tony Blair, insisted the marbles should stay put in the British Museum, as one of its highlights.

Last week, the sculptures returned to public view after a prolonged closure of the museum’s Greek galleries caused by the coronavirus pandemic and maintenance work. They reappeared as activists around Europe are clamoring to rectify perceived historical injustices, yet the idea of returning the marbles to Athens seems to have as little political support here as it did in Kinnock’s day.

The British government’s official position is that it is not responsible for the marbles’ fate: That, it says, is a matter for the British Museum’s trustees, a group largely appointed by the prime minister that has repeatedly said the sculptures are integral to the museum’s mission of telling world history.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson — an Oxford classics graduate who loves to quote ancient Greek — has for years said the marbles belong in London. In 2012, when he was London’s mayor, he wrote to a Greek official saying he “had reflected deeply over many years” on the sculptures, and, as much as he sympathized with the Greek case, it would be “a grievous and irremediable loss” if they left the British Museum.

When Johnson met with Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, last month, he reiterated the government position that anything to do with the marbles was a question for British Museum trustees, not him.

Throughout 2021, as other European governments announced restitution policies and gave items back, Britain’s buck-passing on the marbles looked increasingly out of step.

Yet in Britain, a one-time colonial and trading power whose museums are stuffed with treasures from its former possessions, restitution is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government, nor the opposition Labour party, has issued a policy statement on the subject, and there has been no debate on the issue in Parliament.

Current and former British lawmakers said there were a host of reasons for the lack of action. Kinnock, 79, said in an email that the government, and much of the British public, had the tendency “to cling to (or even yearn for) a real or imagined past.”

Returning artifacts would be seen as “woke,” Kinnock added, and the government treats that “as vampires treat sunlight.”

John Hayes, a Conservative Party lawmaker and chair of an influential right-wing group in Parliament called Common Sense, said that Belgium, France and Germany were returning items to their former colonies to improve relations, but Britain had much better connections with its prior imperial possessions.

By doing nothing on restitution, British lawmakers were being “more sensible” than their continental counterparts, he said, adding that the belief that all items should be returned to their countries of origin was “a preposterous position,” with no logical end.

By tradition, Britain’s government does not interfere in the day-to-day running of museums it funds. But the current government has recently applied pressure to shape their policies. Last year, Oliver Dowden, the country’s culture minister at the time, wrote to museum leaders, telling them to “retain and explain” disputed monuments, like statues of slave owners, rather than removing them from view.

Dowden also made his own views on restitution clear, telling a British TV station in September that Benin Bronzes in the British Museum “properly reside” in the collection.

Activists say the government could take action on the Parthenon Marbles if it wanted to. Artemis Papathanassiou, a member of a committee under Greece’s culture ministry that works for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said that since Britain’s government sets the rules for major museums and often appoints their trustees, it should get involved. “They just don’t want to take responsibility,” she said.

In September, a UNESCO committee on returning contested artifacts said the dispute over the marbles “has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures lies squarely on the United Kingdom government.”

Yet lawmakers insist the matter is out their hands, even though, under the 1963 law that governs the British Museum, the trustees can only remove items from the collection if they are “unfit to be retained” and “can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students.”

Samantha Knights, a lawyer working on restitution cases, said that the law was so vague that it potentially gave the trustees some leeway. When Elgin took the marbles, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire; he had a permit to make excavations at the Parthenon, though it is unclear whether he had permission to remove anything. Knights said the trustees “could decide that, because of the history of the way the Parthenon Marbles came to be acquired, and the very powerful arguments of the Greek government for their return, they are now ‘unfit to be retained,’” she said.

“But whether the trustees would be prepared to come to that conclusion is another question,” Knights added.

The British Museum’s trustees do not seem in the mood for giving back.

Since September, the board has been led by George Osborne, a former Conservative lawmaker who was Britain’s finance chief from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to several interview requests for this article, but in an opinion piece in the Times of London earlier this month, he said the museum was “open to lending our artifacts to anywhere who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return,” including Greece. The Greek government has previously rejected offers to borrow the Parthenon Marbles, holding out for their permanent return.

Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, also declined to be interviewed but said in an emailed statement that the marbles helped visitors “gain an insight into the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time.” The museum’s website explains that the sculptures “convey the influences between Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman” civilizations, and argues they are best presented in this context.

Janet Suzman, an actor and the chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said she hoped changing attitudes around the world to where African artifacts belong would influence views on the marbles. In November, a survey by YouGov, a polling organization, said 59 percent of the British public believes the marbles belong in Greece.

But Osborne’s appointment had made her “much less hopeful” about the cause, Suzman said. “Nobody is appointed to the British Museum unless you swear on your mother’s grave that you won’t be returning anything,” she said.

Kinnock, the former Labour leader, said that he felt “rather forlorn” when he considered the chances of the marbles being returned. Other European governments had their own reasons for returning disputed items, he said: Germany, for instance, had a “clearly different” attitude toward restitution, perhaps influenced by national reflections on its roles in World War II and “the comparative brevity” of its empire.

Change in Britain will “only come with a different government that would, in various ways, seek to improve the U.K.’s perception of its history,” he said. “Then,” he added, “there would be a strong possibility that our admirable country will be Great Britain in 21st Century terms.”