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The case for returning the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece has never been stronger

(Alamy)

4 min read

The debate about the Parthenon Sculptures is back in the public eye following the news that negotiations between the Greek government and the British Museum are formally underway.

As an ex-culture minister who formerly opposed the return of the sculptures, I find myself part of a growing chorus of opinion arguing that now is the time to resolve this age-old issue.
As chair of the Parthenon Project, I have been struck by the political diversity of the politicians, commentators and journalists, who share my belief that the sculptures belong in Athens as a reunified piece of art. From Lord Frost to Ben Bradshaw, the pressure is mounting for a pragmatic way forward.

The rich story told by the elaborate friezes will remain fractured whilst they are kept apart

And this is far from a Westminster bubble issue. The latest YouGov polling found that a majority of adults in the United Kingdom think we should return the sculptures to Athens. In fact there is more support for returning the sculptures, over keeping them in the British Museum, amongst supporters of all three main political parties, across every age group, and in every region of the UK.
So with such a mass of public support, decision makers are beginning to ask, what would a return of the sculptures look like? And how do we contest with some of the red lines that have emerged on both sides? 

With this debate having rumbled on for centuries it’s clear we need a fresh, creative solution that would see both sides benefit: a win-win. Our campaign has called for a deal that would see the sculptures reunified in their rightful home while protecting the British Museum’s rightful reputation as a “museum of the world”. This deal would be underpinned by a cultural exchange which could see stunning Greek artefacts such as the Mask of Agamemnon displayed in the UK as part of rotating exhibitions, attracting new visitors to the British Museum. 

While the prospect of a cultural partnership feels closer than ever, the most common riposte is that returning the sculptures would precipitate a “slippery slope” toward restitution and a wholesale denuding of our museums and their global collections. 

We understand this concern, and it is one that needs addressing as part of the solution, but we need to acknowledge what is unique about the sculptures. Most importantly they were designed to be seen as a single piece of art and the rich story told by the elaborate friezes will remain fractured whilst they are kept apart. Furthermore the Greek government is not seeking the return of the many other Greek artefacts in British museums, but the reunification of this specific collection. Reunifying the sculptures in the shadow of the Parthenon temple would provide the people of Greece and global visitors to the Acropolis Museum with the opportunity to study the pieces in their proper context, and in their truest form. The Greek government has also made clear it is willing to offer other precious objects for rotating exhibits as part of an agreement, so the British Museum would not see its collection emptied but, in fact, enhanced.

I have been enthused by George Osborne’s willingness to open a dialogue and get decision makers around the negotiating table. It’s fair to say he has accomplished more in progressing discussions in his 20 months as chair of the British Museum than anyone else over the course of this 200-year saga. 

But converting this momentum into a deal will require imaginative thinking in order to overcome the impasse. In 2023, we could genuinely see a landmark deal agreed that would see the sculptures reunited, new life breathed into the British Museum’s collection and its reputation as a leading guardian of global artefacts clear for all to see. Such a deal would be a victory – not only for the historians and classicists of tomorrow, but for the British Museum itself and the image of Global Britain.

 

Lord Vaizey, Conservative peer and former culture minister 

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