The first sign that an issue is politically charged is the inability to agree on its name. It is not innocent that certain politicians in the United Kingdom refer to the “Marbles of Elgin”, instead of speaking of the “Marbles of the Parthenon”, to name all the sculptures of the Acropolis of Athens which, since two centuries, are exhibited in the British Museum in London. Thomas Bruce Elgin, Lord Elgin, was the diplomat who, with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, took more than half of the statues between 1801 and 1805. Present-day Greece was then under these dominions. In 1816, in bankruptcy, they were sold to the museum for 350,000 pounds (310,000 euros) at the time.
Each country drags along its particular national causes, without stopping to reflect whether the times or circumstances have changed. Successive Greek governments have demanded the return of what they unequivocally define as pillage. Governments in the United Kingdom refuse, as an unalterable official position, to return a heritage acquired, according to them, in a legitimate way.
The latest friction occurred in mid-November with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ visit to London. In a shrewd but unsuccessful move, the conservative Greek politician appealed to the global britain (Global Britain) that Johnson dreams of deploying in the post-Brexit era. What better gesture to inaugurate this new era of international relations than the generous return of the marbles? Much more if one takes into account that Johnson is a lover of classical Greece, who boasts of reciting the first hundred lines of the Odyssey. Or that, as president of the Oxford Union University Debating Club, in 1986 he invited Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress, singer and Minister of Culture who championed the campaign to return the sculptures. And that, even as mayor of London, he came to defend in a letter to the Greek authorities, in 2012, that “in an ideal world, the marbles of the Parthenon should never have been removed from the Acropolis”.
None of this influences when power is reached, and the swim against the tide of the establishment it has a price. “The British Museum operates independently of government. He is free from political interference and any questions regarding the Parthenon carvings are his exclusive concern,” a Johnson spokesman said during the Greek prime minister’s visit.
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It turns out that the rooms that house the sculptures have been closed since the start of the pandemic. The British Museum reopened in May, but kept them closed due to maintenance work and humidity containment in an adjacent gallery, which in August served as a new argument for Athens to claim the pieces in because of the “dangerous” conditions in which they find themselves exposed. Its reopening is scheduled for December 13.
Paradoxically, those in charge of the museum have assured for years that, even in the hypothetical case, although unlikely, that they want to return the sculptures, they could not do so, because the law in force does not authorize them to freely dispose of their heritage. without the permission of Parliament. “It’s a continuous table tennis to which we are already accustomed, and which makes this problem almost insoluble”, explains Yannis Andritsopoulos, London correspondent for the Greek daily. Your Nea. “The museum transfers the responsibility to the government, and the government to the museum. Because no one dares to take the plunge. They fear what they call the valve, the open lock, the precedent by which hundreds of thousands of artistic objects now in British institutions are recovered”.
The London Foreign Press Association awarded Andritsopoulos one of its prestigious awards this year, for being the first Greek journalist to obtain a statement from Johnson on the issue, already as prime minister. The iconoclastic rebel and academic allowed himself to be photographed next to a statue of Pericles, but his response did not depart from the official norm: legally, the marbles belong to the museum. No politician, Tory or Labour, dare turn on this tap. They are afraid that the case will end up turning against them. Only former left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn has publicly pledged to return the art treasure to Athens.
Because what is really striking in all this controversy is that a large majority of the citizens of the United Kingdom support the return of marbles. According to the latest YouGov poll, dated November 23, 59% of Britons think the sculptures should be on the Acropolis. And only 18% are against. The others, directly, have no opinion on the matter.
Until establishment The most well-meaning Briton is deeply rooted in the belief that this is insoluble matter, and he racks his brains for formulas that will assuage the grievance. “I think that the transfer of ownership, or even a possible donation, is too complicated legally. The British Museum could however discuss a track of cooperation with the Acropolis Museum [en Atenas], and develop a program of joint exhibitions. The precedent of 2014 already exists, when the British council agreed to loan part of the marbles to the Hermitage [en Rusia]“explains Charles Saumarez-Smith, former director of the Royal Academy of Arts, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, all in London, to EL PAÍS.
The trap, however, has a double meaning, as no Greek government would be willing to accept even a permanent loan if it meant officially recognizing the sculptures as the property of the British Museum. Trapped in a legal labyrinth, and in a dispute where fears and nationalism feed, the sculptures will always be there, suspended in the air on their bases, in the room of the museum which welcomes them, one of the places which receives the most of visitors attracts. Without many people being able to understand, beyond the legal, historical or political arguments, what they are doing in London.