The endless story of the Parthenon statues: Boris Johnson will not return them to Greece either | Culture

The first sign that an issue is politically charged is an inability to agree on what to call it. It is not innocent that some UK politicians refer to the “Elgin marbles”, instead of talking about the “Parthenon marbles”, to name all the sculptures of the Acropolis of Athens that, for two centuries, have been exhibited at the British Museum in London. Thomas Bruce Elgin, Lord Elgin, was the diplomat who, with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, took more than half of the statues between 1801 and 1805. Present-day Greece was then under those dominions. In 1816, bankrupt, he sold them to the museum for 350,000 pounds of the time.

Each country drags its particular national causes, without stopping to think if the weather or the circumstances have changed. Successive governments of Greece have demanded the return of what they undoubtedly define as looting. The governments of the United Kingdom refuse, as an unalterable official position, to return a heritage acquired, according to them, in a legitimate way.

The last friction occurred in mid-November with the visit to London of the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In a cunning but unsuccessful maneuver, the Greek conservative politician appealed to the Global Britain (Global Britain) that Johnson dreams of deploying in the post-Brexit era. What better gesture to inaugurate this new era of international relations than the generous return of the marbles? Much more if one takes into account that Johnson is a lover of classical Greece, who boasts of reciting by heart the first hundred lines of the Odyssey. Or that, as president of the Oxford Union university debate club, in 1986 he invited Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress, singer and Minister of Culture who led the campaign for the return of the sculptures. And that, even as mayor of London, he came to defend in a letter to the Greek authorities, in 2012, that “in an ideal world, the marbles of the Parthenon should never have been removed from the Acropolis.”

View of the Acropolis of Athens.
View of the Acropolis of Athens.

None of that influences when power is reached, and swimming against the current of the establishment it has a price. “The British Museum operates independently, outside the Government. He is free from any political interference, and any question regarding the Parthenon sculptures concerns him exclusively, “said a Johnson spokesman during the visit of the Greek prime minister.

It so happens that the rooms that house the sculptures have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. The British Museum reopened its doors in May, but has kept them closed for maintenance and moisture containment work in an adjacent gallery, which in August served a new argument for Athens to claim the pieces for the “dangerous” conditions in which are exhibited. Its reopening is scheduled for December 13.

Paradoxically, those responsible for the museum have been ensuring for years that, even in the hypothetical but unlikely event that they wanted to return the sculptures, they could not do so, because current law does not authorize them to freely dispose of their heritage without the authorization of Parliament. “It is a continuous table tennis that we are used to, and that makes this issue almost unsolvable,” explains Yannis Andritsopoulos, London correspondent for the Greek newspaper. Ta Nea. “The museum transfers the responsibility to the Government, and the Government to the museum. Because nobody dares to take the step. They fear what they call the flat gate, the open door, the precedent by which hundreds of thousands of artistic objects that are currently in British institutions are claimed ”.

The London Foreign Press Association this year gave Andritsopoulos one of its prestigious awards, for being the first Greek journalist to get a statement from Johnson on the matter, already as prime minister. The iconoclast and university rebel allowed himself to be photographed next to a statue of Pericles, but his response did not depart from the official standard: legally, the marbles belong to the museum. No politician, neither Conservative nor Labor, dares to open this spigot. They are terrified that the matter will end up turning against them. Only the former leader of the left, Jeremy Corbyn, made a public commitment to return the artistic treasure to Athens.

Popular support

Because what’s really striking about all this controversy is that a vast majority of UK citizens support the return of the marbles. According to the most recent YouGov poll, on November 23rd, 59% of British people believe that the sculptures should be on the Acropolis. And only 18% are against it. The rest, directly, have no opinion on the matter.

Until the establishment A more well-meaning Briton has a deep-seated conviction that this is an unsolvable affair, and his brain is racking in search of formulas to alleviate the grievance. “I think that the transfer of ownership, or even a possible gift, is too complicated legally. The British Museum could, however, discuss some avenue of cooperation with the Acropolis Museum [en Atenas], and develop a program of joint exhibitions. There is already the precedent of 2014, when the British board agreed to loan part of the marbles to the Hermitage [en Rusia]”, Explains to EL PAÍS Charles Saumarez-Smith, former director of the Royal Academy of Arts, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, all of them in London.

The trap has a double meaning, however, because no Greek government would be willing to accept a loan, even a permanent one, if it meant officially acknowledging that the sculptures are the property of the British Museum. Trapped in a legal maze, and in a dispute in which fears and nationalism feed off each other, the sculptures will still be there, suspended in the air on their pedestals, in the museum room that houses them, one of the places that most visitors visit. attracts. Without many people being able to understand, beyond legal, historical or political arguments, what they do in London.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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