Is the British Museum’s stance changing on the return of the Parthenon marbles?

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“Stolen Goods”; “Looted by the British”; “You stole this like the Parthenon marbles?”

A glance at the British Museum’s social media channels underlines why, when it comes to the long-disputed Acropolis sculptures, he is so eager to “turn the temperature of the debate.”

Those were the words used this week by the museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, in calling for a new “positive partnership” with Greece on marbles.

Displayed at the London museum since 1832, its return was demanded by Greece for much of that time, leaving the two countries stuck in a sometimes irritating stalemate. Now it’s time to “do something qualitatively different,” Williams told the Sunday Times.

But what? Given recent comments by Chairman of the Trustees, George Osborne, that there was “a deal to be done” with Greece, the museum appeared to be hinting at a change in stance on the marbles. So are we likely to see the marbles on display in Athens soon, or perhaps even permanently returned to Greece?

Not exactly. Pressed on the details of the proposed partnership, the British Museum was unequivocal: “We will lend the sculptures, as we do with many other objects, to anyone who wants to display them… as long as they take care of them and return them.”

Likewise, Boris Johnson’s comments that returning the marbles was a matter for the British Museum were widely interpreted as the UK’s slowing down on repatriation. The government now insists he meant just loans — and that the museum is still legally prohibited from returning anything.

The museum may be right when it claims that the issue of legal ownership is not everything – “the public fails when conversations are limited to a legalistic and contradictory context” – but at this strict point, it seems, nothing has changed.

There are some, however, who question how long the museum queue will be able to hold. “These are all indications that they know the game is up,” says Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archeology at the University of Oxford, who also cites comments by V&A director Tristram Hunt that laws preventing museums from return artifacts should be reconsidered.

“What is happening, I think, is a fundamental shift in the position of the public, the stakeholders and the communities that we claim to serve as museums. This idea of ​​a benevolent cultural institution that shares is completely out of whack right now if it’s not supported with the return of stolen goods. There is a sea change in public opinion internationally.”

Hicks has been a prominent critic of the British Museum and other institutions of Benin bronzes, whose legal status, unlike marbles, is largely undisputed. Oxford University last week became the latest in a wave of institutions and governments to agree to return the bronzes, acknowledging that the treasures were looted from the city of Benin by British forces in 1897. So far, the British Museum continues to resist. to requests to return the 900 items Benin keeps, talking only about “research and cultural exchange initiatives” with “stakeholders and partners” in Nigeria.

Museums large and small have grappled with these issues for decades, says Tehmina Goskar, a curator and member of the Museums Association, who until recently was part of its ethics and decolonization committee. “Because of social media, more people are talking about it, but as far as the industry is concerned, it’s been around for a long time. [It’s just that] didn’t move very quickly to do anything about it.”

However, social media, increased engagement with diaspora communities and the anti-racist Black Lives Matter campaign have made issues of repatriation and decolonization more difficult to ignore, notes Goskar. Nearly 60% of Brits now think the Parthenon marbles belong to Greece, with only 18% believing they should stay in London.

There are many in the heritage sector who sympathize with the British Museum’s ambition to be ‘a museum of the world, for the world’. Among them is archaeologist Mike Pitts, who says the marble debate “has become more about politics and cheating than anything else… in the past.

“This does not mean that nothing should be returned. But I think we need a broader conversation rather than a few headlines, simplistic representations.”

As for a possible way forward, says Pitts, “The British Museum is saying that we’re happy to lend material, and they don’t seem to be putting any sort of limit on the length of that loan. So one can imagine that a really significant part of the Parthenon’s collection could effectively end up on permanent display in Athens. But as a loan.”

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