Parthenon paradox: the unresolved dispute shaking Greek-British relations
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Parthenon paradox: the unresolved dispute shaking Greek-British relations

In a tale intertwining art, politics, and history, the cancelled meeting becomes a focal point reigniting the Elgin Marbles controversy. The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. These marvellous works of art have been displayed in the British Museum for over 200 years. However, Greece has long demanded their return, arguing that they were taken during a period of Ottoman occupation and should be returned to their rightful home.

The recent cancellation of a meeting between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis has brought this issue back into the spotlight1. Sunak accused Mitsotakis of “grandstanding” during a recent trip to London over the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures1. Sunak stated that he had cancelled a planned meeting with Mitsotakis after the Greek premier broke a promise not to use his trip as an opportunity to advocate for the return of the sculptures.

Despite an act from 1963 prohibiting the removal of artefacts from the British Museum’s collection, London has entertained the idea of “temporarily” lending the friezes to Greece. Athens, however, aims for the permanent repatriation of its national heritage, an argument gaining strength in a postcolonial world.

Parthenon - Marble

What are the Parthenon friezes?

The friezes and sculptures adorned the Parthenon temple in Athens, constructed between 447-432 BCE. Half of the marble making up the friezes (about 75 meters) and 17 life-sized statues were removed to the UK. Almost all surviving sculptures are roughly divided between Athens and London. 

The new Acropolis Museum, opened in Athens in 2009, is designed to exhibit all sculptures in their original display. Personalities involved in the campaign for the return of the friezes include the late actress and former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri. 

Lord Elgin, an art enthusiast, claimed the sculptures would be better protected in the UK than in the then-dilapidated Parthenon. In 1801, he said he negotiated with the Ottoman Empire—then controlling Athens—to remove statues from the classical temple, causing damage to the ruins. Individual fragments of the Parthenon ended up in 10 European countries or were lost.

Parthenon

The Dispute Explained

It’s a longstanding dispute between two allied countries that has gone unresolved for decades: the Parthenon Friezes, marble sculptures that adorned the facade of the ancient Athenian temple. Half of these sculptures have resided in the British Museum since the 19th century, and Greece consistently demands their return. 

Despite an act from 1963 prohibiting the removal of artefacts from the British Museum’s collection, London has entertained the idea of “temporarily” lending the friezes to Greece. Athens, however, aims for the permanent repatriation of its national heritage, an argument that gains strength in a postcolonial world.

The amicable relationship between Greece and the UK has endured the firm opposing stances of both governments on the Parthenon Friezes dispute. Still, the issue has now created a diplomatic tangle for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The British government claims to have received assurances that Mitsotakis wouldn’t publicly address the Parthenon Friezes—also known as the Elgin Marbles—during his visit to the British capital.

Marble

However, Mitsotakis, viewing having part of this historical treasure in London and the other part in Athens as “like splitting the Mona Lisa in two,” expressed disappointment over the cancellation. The altercation has stirred a diplomatic problem for the British government, causing internal turmoil. The opposing Labour Party labelled the situation as “pathetic.” Mitsotakis rejected an alternative meeting with British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, and sources familiar with the Greek government suggest he is both “perplexed” and “annoyed.”

Professor Irene Stamatoudi, a former member of the Greek Ministry of Culture advisory committee, likened Sunak’s handling of the situation to Lord Elgin himself, accusing the 19th-century diplomat of trafficking artefacts “to decorate his country estate in Scotland.” Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Stamatoudi emphasised that it was not possible for the Greek Prime Minister to avoid questions about the Parthenon Friezes posed by the media.

Marble

In his interview with BBC’s Editor-in-Chief Laura Kuenssberg, the Greek prime minister called for the return of the sculptures. He mentioned that the friezes had been “essentially stolen” but urged cooperation with the British Museum so people could “appreciate” the works “in their original setting.”

He added that while the cancellation of the meeting was not “common,” the Greek government did not want to “escalate the issue with a country with which we have good relations.” The ongoing debate revolves around the role of museums and their collections in a postcolonial world, with Prime Minister Sunak seemingly positioned on one side of the discussion.

Marble

Sunak is eager to position himself as a defender of keeping the friezes in London. A high-ranking Conservative Party source stated, “Our position is clear; the Elgin Marbles are part of the British Museum’s permanent collection and belong here.” However, Mitsotakis told reporters that he was “deeply disappointed by the abrupt cancellation.”

In his interview with BBC’s Editor-in-Chief Laura Kuenssberg, the Greek prime minister called for the return of the sculptures. He mentioned that the friezes had been “essentially stolen” but urged cooperation with the British Museum so people could “appreciate” the works “in their original setting.” 

Parthenon

He added that while the cancellation of the meeting was not “common,” the Greek government did not want to “escalate the issue with a country with which we have good relations.” The ongoing debate revolves around the role of museums and their collections in a postcolonial world, with Prime Minister Sunak seemingly positioned on one side of the discussion.

However, former British Culture Minister Lord Vaizey commented on the BBC that it seemed “odd” for Sunak to have cancelled the meeting. Vaizey, who chairs the advisory board of the Parthenon Project dedicated to the return of the friezes to Greece, indicated that the prime minister’s attitude is linked to a traditional cultural war “where anyone who says that British history was not perfect somehow is not a patriot.” According to him, “from what I see, every poll of the British public says they believe the marbles should be returned.”

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