The U.K. and Greece Will Hold Landmark Talks on the Contested Parthenon Marbles

The United Kingdom will hold formal talks with Greece regarding the potential repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles, which have been in the British Museum since 1816. There are not dates set yet for the meeting, which was proposed by the UK’s minister for arts, Stephen Parkinson, to Greece on April 29. UNESCO announced the landmark agreement on May 17 ahead of International Museum Day.

Also called the Elgin Marbles, the contested sculptures were stripped from the Acropolis in 1801 by Lord Elgin while Greece was under Ottoman occupation and deposited in the London institution. Created between 447 BCE and 432 BCE, the group comprises marble relief panels, figures, and friezes depicting a festival procession celebrating the birthday of the Greek goddess Athena.

The U.K. has notoriously resisted calls from successive Greek governments to return the sculptures, maintaining that they were acquired under legal means. Last March, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that his government had no plans to transport the works from England.

But scrutiny of that stance has deepened amid a growing number of European and North American institutions have repatriated objects taken during periods of colonization from their countries of origin. The Benin Bronzes, a group of objects looted by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin 1897, have been at the forefront of the repatriations wave.

Last September, a UNESCO advisory board called on the U.K. to “reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece.” British Parliament has said that because the museum operates independently of the British government and can make decisions relating to the works in its collections, it should decide the fate of the Parthenon Marbles.

In a statement following the suggestion from UNESCO, Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said the issue “is of an intergovernmental nature—in contrast to claims from the British side that it is a matter for the British Museum—and mainly that Greece has a valid and legal claim to demand the return of the sculptures to their place of birth.”

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