For decades, Britain and Greece were able to differ, largely politely, over the world’s toughest cultural heritage dispute: What’s the right place for some of the finest ancient Greek sculptures ever made, which have been displayed in London for more than 200 years but which Greece vocally wants back. Diplomacy failed when U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly called off a London meeting scheduled for Tuesday with Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
- Abrupt Meeting Cancellation: U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unexpectedly canceled a scheduled meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, where the Parthenon Marbles dispute was to be discussed.
- Greek Reaction: The Greek government expressed annoyance and surprise at the cancellation, denying any agreement to avoid public discussion of the marbles during Mitsotakis’s visit.
- British Museum’s Stance: The British Museum, where the marbles are currently held, maintains that they were legally acquired and insists on Greek acknowledgment of its legal ownership for any loan to take place.
- Greek Demand for Return: Greece has long demanded the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, arguing they were illegally removed and should be reunited in Athens.
- Cultural and Historical Significance: The sculptures, dating back to 447-432 B.C., are celebrated works of ancient Greek art and originally adorned the Parthenon in Athens.
- Diplomatic Spat Over Public Comments: Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting reportedly stemmed from Mitsotakis’s public call on British television for the sculptures’ return, which the U.K. saw as reneging on a promise.
- Ongoing Discussions with the British Museum: Despite the political row, discussions between the Greek government and the British Museum are ongoing, focusing on a potential compromise or a long-term loan.
- Hardened U.K. Government Position: The U.K. government appears to have a firmer stance on the issue, with the Transport Secretary affirming the sculptures should remain at the British Museum.
- Legal and Moral Arguments: The dispute encompasses legal, cultural, and moral arguments, with Greece framing the issue as a moral concern about cultural heritage.
- Public and Political Reactions in Greece: The issue has united various political parties in Greece, emphasizing its significance as a national and cultural matter.
- Implications for U.K.-Greece Relations: The dispute has strained diplomatic relations between the two countries, affecting discussions on other important issues like migration, climate change, and regional conflicts.
- International Context: The case has broader implications for cultural heritage disputes worldwide, highlighting the complexities of restitution and legal ownership of historical artifacts.
The Associated Press has the story:
How a group of ancient sculptures sparked a dispute between Greece & UK
Newslooks- ATHENS, Greece (AP)
For decades, Britain and Greece were able to differ, largely politely, over the world’s toughest cultural heritage dispute: What’s the right place for some of the finest ancient Greek sculptures ever made, which have been displayed in London for more than 200 years but which Greece vocally wants back.
Mitsotakis publicly voiced annoyance. Sunak’s spokesman linked the snub with the Greek leader’s using British television to renew his call, a day earlier, for the 2,500-year-old masterpieces’ return.
Here’s a look at what the dispute’s about, and what could come next.
WHAT ARE THE SCULPTURES — OR IS IT MARBLES?
They were carved in 447-432 B.C. to adorn the iconic Parthenon, a temple of the city’s patron goddess Athena, on the Acropolis hill.
Free-standing statues filled the triangular pediments that stood above the marble columns on the building’s short sides. Just below, sculpted panels stood at intervals along all four sides, while an unbroken strip of relief sculpture — the frieze — depicting a religious procession ran around the outer wall inside the colonnade. They were originally painted in bold colors that have since vanished.
All survived mostly intact for more than 1,000 years, despite war, earthquakes, foreign invasions and the temple’s makeover first as a church and then a mosque. But in 1687, the Parthenon was blown up by a besieging Venetian army, and many of the works were lost.
The survivors are now roughly split between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens — with little fragments in a handful of other European museums.
London holds 17 pedimental figures, 15 panels and 247 feet (75 meters) of the frieze.
For decades, these were known as the Elgin Marbles, after the Scottish nobleman who started the trouble more than 200 years ago. Now even the British Museum goes by the preferred Greek form — Parthenon Sculptures. Besides, “marbles” lends itself to too many bad puns.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
Ancient Greek sculpture has been admired for millennia, serving as a key artistic point of reference. For many, Parthenon Sculptures are its most striking example.
They form a coherent group designed and executed by top artists — the Leonardo da Vincis of the day —for a single building project meant to celebrate the height of Athenian glory.
HOW DID THEY END UP IN LONDON?
More than a century after the destructive explosion, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — of which Athens was still an unwilling subject — Lord Elgin obtained a permit to remove some of the sculptures.
They were shipped to Britain and eventually joined the British Museum’s collection in 1816 — five years before the uprising that created an independent Greece.
WHAT’S THE GREEK CASE FOR RESTITUTION?
Athens says the works were illegally removed and should join other surviving parts of the group in the purpose-built Acropolis Museum, at the foot of the ancient citadel.
This, the Greek argument runs, will allow them to be seen against the backdrop of the Parthenon, from which all sculptures have been removed for protection from pollution and the elements.
The Greek campaign was loudly championed in the 1980s by Melina Mercouri, an actress and singer then serving as culture minister. It waxed and waned since but was never dropped and has been enthusiastically taken up by Mitsotakis.
In his BBC interview on Sunday that triggered the diplomatic dispute, Mitsotakis compared the current situation to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa being cut in half and split between two countries.
WHAT’S THE BRITISH ARGUMENT FOR KEEPING THEM?
The British Museum says the sculptures were acquired legally and form an integral part of its display of the world’s cultural history.
It says it’s open to a loan request, but must be sure that in such an event it would get the works back. So Athens should first acknowledge the institution’s legal ownership of the works — which Mitsotakis has ruled out.
Successive U.K. governments have insisted that the sculptures must stay put.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The current spat notwithstanding, the British Museum’s chairman said earlier this year that he’s been in “constructive” talks with Greece on a compromise “win-win” deal.
George Osborne said that he was “reasonably optimistic” about striking a deal, but cautioned that “it may well not come to anything.”
And Greek officials insisted Tuesday that the talks would continue.
Meanwhile, Athens is trying to round up as many of the small fragments in other European museums as it can. That would add pressure on the British Museum, while U.K. public opinion is seen as increasingly backing the Greek demand.
Following an initiative by Pope Francis in January, the Vatican Museums sent back three smaller fragments of sculptures from the Parthenon that they had held for two centuries. A year earlier, a museum in Sicily returned its own small fragment.
Greek officials angry and puzzled after UK’s Sunak scraps leaders’ meeting over Parthenon Marbles
LONDON (AP) — Greek officials said Tuesday that they will continue talks with the British Museum about bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly canceling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.
But the U.K. government said ownership of the marbles is “settled” — and they’re British.
The two European allies traded barbs Tuesday in a deepening diplomatic row that erupted when Sunak called off a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hours before it was due to take place.
Mitsotakis had planned to raise Greece’s decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures when he met Sunak at 10 Downing St. on Tuesday. The two center-right leaders were also slated to talk about migration, climate change and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.
Mitsotakis was instead offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, which he declined.
British officials were annoyed that Mitsotakis had appeared on British television Sunday and compared the removal of the sculptures from Athens to cutting the Mona Lisa in half.
Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, said Mitsotakis had reneged on a promise not to talk publicly about the marbles during his three-day visit to Britain.
“The Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long-settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures,” he said. “Given those assurances were not adhered to, the prime minister felt it would not be productive” to have the meeting.
The Greek government denied Mitsotakis had agreed not to raise the subject in public.
Mitsotakis met Monday in London with U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, whose party leads Sunak’s governing Conservatives in opinion polls. The prime minister’s office denied that meting had contributed to Sunak’s decision to cancel.
Dimitris Tsiodras, head of the Greek prime minister’s press office, said Mitsotakis was angry at the “British misstep.”
“Of course he was angry … Look, Greece is a proud country. It has a long history. Mitsotakis represents that country,” Tsiodras told private network Mega television.
Opposition parties in Greece, from the Greek Communist Party and centrists to far-right nationalists, also condemned Sunak for the cancellation. Left-wing opposition leader Stefanos Kasselakis said the issue of the sculptures goes “beyond party differences.”
“It is a national issue that concerns the history of an entire people. And it is a moral issue concerning the shameless theft of cultural wealth from its natural setting,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the Elgin Marbles – as they are known in Britain — have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries. The remainder of the friezes are in a purpose-built museum in Athens.
Earlier this year, museum chairman George Osborne — Treasury chief in a previous Conservative U.K. government — said the discussions had been “constructive.”
Tsiodras said Tuesday that discussions “are ongoing with the British Museum for the return – I should say the reunification – of the marbles to Athens.”
“I don’t think the effort stops there,” he said. “Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and (Sunak) is quite behind in the polls … but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing.”
Sunak’s government appears to have hardened its position, however.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that “the government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”
And Blain said that “a loan cannot happen without the Greeks accepting that the British Museum are the legal owners” of the antiquities.