Britain Remains Silent at Parthenon as Europe Returns Artifacts

LONDON – In 1984, Neil Kinnock, then leader of Britain’s opposition Labor Party, did what few politicians dared here: he promised to return the Parthenon Marbles.

Often called the Elgin Marbles after the English aristocrat who took them from the Parthenon and brought them to London in the early 1800s, these classical sculptures were a “moral issue”. Kinnock told reporters while visiting Athens. “The Parthenon without marble 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, let alone Conservative members of Margaret Thatcher’s government, shared his views. He didn’t force the idea.

Most of his successors including Tony Blairinsisted that it should remain in the British Museum as one of the outstanding marbles.

Last week, the sculptures were returned to the public after the museum’s Greek galleries were closed for an extended period due to the coronavirus pandemic and maintenance work. These have resurfaced as activists in Europe clamored to correct perceived historical injustices, but the idea of ​​returning the marbles to Athens seems to have had as little political support here as it did in Kinnock’s time.

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

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an Oxford classics graduate who likes to quote ancient Greek, has said for years that the marbles belonged to London. When he was mayor of London in 2012, Wrote to a Greek official He said that “he had been thinking deeply about the sculptures for many years” and that no matter how much he sympathized with the Greek example, it would be a “grave and irreparable loss” for them to leave the British Museum.

When Johnson met with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last month, reiterated the government’s position that anything related to marbles is a matter for the British Museum trustees, not him.

Throughout 2021, it seemed more and more out of step for the UK to put shoes on marbles as other European governments announced return policies and returned items.

Yet in Britain, a once colonial and trading power whose museums are filled with treasures from former estates, restitution is not even on the political agenda. Neither the government nor the opposition Labor Party made a policy statement on the issue, and there was no discussion of the issue in the Parliament.

Current and former British MPs said there were many reasons for the lack of action. Kinnock, 79, said in an email that the government and most of the British public “tend to hold on (or even yearn) to a real or imagined past.

Kinnock added that returning artifacts will be seen as “awakened,” and the government is treating it “as vampires treat sunlight.”

John Hayes, a Conservative Party MP and chairman An influential right-wing group in parliament called Common SenseHe said Belgium, France and Germany returned their possessions to their former colonies to improve relations, but Britain had much better links with its previous imperial possessions.

British lawmakers said they were “more logical” than their continental counterparts by doing nothing about extradition, adding that the belief that all items should be returned to their country of origin is a “mindless position” with no logical end.

By tradition, the British government does not interfere with the day-to-day running of the museums it finances. But the current government has recently exerted pressure to shape its policies. Last year, Oliver Dowden, then minister of culture, wrote a letter to museum leaders instructing museum leaders to “keep and explain” rather than sacrificing controversial monuments such as statues of slave owners.

Dowden also clarified his views on extradition, describe a British television station In September it was announced that the Benin Bronzes at the British Museum are “appropriately included” in the collection.

Activists say the government can take action on the Parthenon Marbles if it wants to. Artemis Papathanassiou, a member of a committee working to reunite the Parthenon Marbles under Greece’s culture ministry, said the UK government should be involved as it sets the rules for major museums and usually appoints their trustees. “They just don’t want to take responsibility,” he said.

In September, UNESCO’s committee to return the controversial artifacts said the dispute over the marbles “has an intergovernmental character and therefore the obligation to return the Parthenon statues rests directly with the UK government”.

Still, lawmakers insist that the issue is not in their hands. 1963 law governing the British Museum, the Board of Trustees may remove from the collection only items that are “unfit for retention” and “can be disposed of without harming the interests of students.”

Samantha Knights, an attorney who works on compensation cases, said the law was so vague that it potentially gave the trustees some loopholes. Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire when Elgin bought the marbles; He was allowed to excavate the Parthenon, but it’s unclear whether he was allowed to remove anything. “Due to the history of the way the Parthenon Marbles were received, and the Greek government’s very strong arguments for their return, they may now decide that they are ‘unfit to be kept’,” Knights said. .

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

The British Museum’s board of trustees doesn’t seem in the mood to give it back.

Since September, the board has been led by former Conservative MP George Osborne, who was Britain’s chief finance officer from 2010 to 2016. Osborne did not respond to several requests for interviews for this article, but An opinion piece in the Times of London Earlier this month, he said the museum is “open to lend our works to anywhere that can take good care of them and ensure their safe return,” including Greece. Greek government has previously rejected offers Borrowing the Parthenon Marbles and waiting for them to return permanently.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, also declined to be interviewed, but said in an emailed statement that the marbles help visitors “get a sense of the world’s cultures and how they have connected with each other over time.” Museum’s website He explains that the sculptures “transmit influences between the Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman civilizations,” and argues that they are best presented in this context.

Janet Suzman, an actor and chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said she hopes the change in where African artifacts belong around the world will affect views on marbles. In November, a survey by YouGov, a survey organization, 59 percent of British people believes that the marbles belong to Greece.

But Suzman said Osborne’s appointment made him “much less hopeful” because of that. “No one is appointed to the British Museum unless they take an oath on the mother’s grave that they will not return anything,” he said.

Former Labor leader Kinnock said he felt “quite helpless” when he considered the chances of returning the marbles. He said other European governments had their own reasons for returning the disputed items: Germany, for example, had a “clearly different” stance on extradition, perhaps even after World War II. empire.

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

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