Controversy over the Parthenon Frieze: London and Athens are stuck | culture | DW

When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited his British counterpart Boris Johnson in London in mid-November 2021, he had a centuries-old request in his bags: Once and for all, he wanted to make sure the marble carvings at the British Museum, which once belonged to the Parthenon, return. to her home.

The 2,500-year-old reliefs depicting scenes from Greek mythology were also called “Elgin Marbles,” named after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Since 1801, he removed the marble frieze from the Acropolis and sold it to the British government at a profit, along with hundreds of other ancient objects from Athens.

Parthenon-fries, a branch of England

Marble carvings consist of parts of a frieze, parapets (single images with some figures) and groups of figures. They make up about half of the surviving Parthenon statues. There are many of their counterparts in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Barely by law preventing them from being sold to the British Museum in 1816, it was already quite controversial at the time. British poet and writer Lord Byron spoke of a “steal”.

Greece has always been talking about things stolen from it. The UK sees it differently. According to the British Museum, it was acquired legally – and therefore should remain where it is: in London.

In a comprehensive statement on the museum’s website, the museum’s curators stated that Lord Elgin “acted with the full knowledge and permission of the authorities at the time in both Athens and London”.

The mother of all payback discussions

Asked by Alexander Hermann, deputy director of the British Institute of Art and Law and author of “Restoration of Rights, Return of Cultural Artifacts,” published in 2021, in response to a comment: DW request.

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“This topic has been on the cultural agenda in Great Britain and of course in Greece for more than 200 years,” Hermann said.

Dispute over marble carvings stuck

Turkey occupied Greece at the time Lord Elgin removed the sculptures, but soon after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, calls were raised to restore the various artifacts, says Hermann, who holds both positions in his research. About the Parthenon Sculptures.

The demands for redemption are rising all over the world

The redemption debate has accelerated in recent years. Museums all over the world, from the United States to Germany, have returned objects obtained under mysterious circumstances in former colonial strongholds. France recently returned 26 works of art to Benin from the former Kingdom of Dahomey.

The Benin bronzes, which can be seen in the center of the newly opened Ethnological Museum at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and which will be returned to Nigeria from 2022, are also highly controversial.

Boris Johnson and Kyriakos Mitsotakis in blue suits outside Downing Street

Boris Johnson and Kyriakos Mitsotakis

In November 2021, the German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property brought together 40 experts from around the world to discuss looted art and the return of colonial pieces. The issue has moved into the public consciousness – and with it the ongoing feud between Greece and the United Kingdom.

Boris Johnson does not feel responsible

The November meeting between the two heads of state and the government did not go as the Greek Prime Minister had hoped. Boris Johnson claimed “nothing to do with him” and said that while he understood “the strong feelings of the Greek people”, it was only about the British Museum, not the British government.

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The issue was taken up in October by a UNESCO advisory committee, which recommended that the British Museum seek dialogue with Greece.

Apparently, many Britons also want the statues to be returned to Greece: according to a YouGov poll in November, 56% of Britons questioned were in favor of returning the sculptures to Greece.

Other voices from the United Kingdom also spoke. Writer and activist Stephen Fry, who has authored a number of books on Greek mythology, has called for the sculptures to be returned to Greece and suggested that the British Museum use 3D technology to render the works in place of the originals.

Is there a middle ground?

According to recovery expert Hermann, both parties are so involved in their arguments that finding an elegant way out of the current impasse is almost impossible.

The more both sides insist on their positions – the UK by proving that the items were obtained legally and Greece that they were stolen and belong to their homeland – the more difficult the situation becomes. “Both sides have to be able to compromise in order to find a solution,” Hermann said.

If that happens, it will be an important step, says the scientist: “It will be a very special moment for British-Greek relations, but also for Europe and the world, to demonstrate that even the most pressing differences can be resolved.”

Adapted from English by Sven Toniggs.

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