“Stolen goods”; “plundered by the British”; “Did you steal this like the Parthenon marbles?”
A look at the British Museum’s social media channels underscores why, when it comes to the long-disputed Acropolis sculptures, it is so eager to “change the temperature of the debate”.
Those were the words used this week by the museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, when he called for a new “positive partnership” with Greece over the marbles.
Displayed in the London museum since 1832, their return had been demanded by Greece for much of that time, leaving the two countries in an sometimes awkward stalemate. Now is the time to “do something qualitatively different,” Williams told the Sunday Times.
But what? Given the recent comments from the chairman of trustees, George Osborne, that a “deal had to be struck” with Greece, the museum seemed to hint at a change in its stance on the marbles. So will we probably get to see the marbles in Athens soon, or maybe even return them permanently to Greece?
Not quite. Pressing the details of the proposed collaboration, the British Museum was unequivocal: “We will lend the sculptures, like many other objects, to those who wish to exhibit them … provided they take care of them and return them.”
Similarly, comments by Boris Johnson that the return of the marbles was a matter for the British Museum were widely interpreted as the UK’s return on repatriation. The government now insists he only meant loans — and that the museum is still legally prohibited from giving anything back.
The museum may be right in stating that the issue of legal ownership isn’t everything – “the public has failed when conversations are confined to a legalistic and hostile context” – but on that strict point, nothing seems to have changed.
However, there are those who wonder how long the museum’s line will be able to hold. “These are all indications that they know the game is over,” said Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archeology at the University of Oxford who also quotes Q&A Director Tristram Hunt’s comments that the laws prohibiting museums from returning artifacts should be reconsidered.
“What’s happening, I think, is a fundamental shift in the position of the public, stakeholders and communities that we say we serve as museums. That idea of a benevolent cultural institution that shares is now completely out of line if it’s not backed up with the return of stolen goods. There is an international turnaround in public opinion.”
Hicks was a prominent critic of the British Museum and other institutions on the Benin bronzes, whose legal status, unlike the marbles, is largely undisputed. The University of Oxford last week became the latest in a wave of institutions and governments to agree to return bronzes, acknowledging that the treasures were looted from the city of Benin in 1897 by British troops. So far, the British Museum continues to resist calls to return the 900 Benin items it applies, speaking only of “research and cultural exchange initiatives” with “stakeholders and partners” in Nigeria.
Museums large and small have struggled with these issues for decades, said Tehmina Goskar, curator and fellow of the Museums Association, who until recently served on the Ethics and Decolonization Committee. “There is more talk about it through social media, but as far as the sector is concerned, it has been a thing for a long time. [It’s just that] it hasn’t been very fast to do anything about it.”
Social media, increased engagement with diaspora communities and the anti-racist Black Lives Matter campaign have made repatriation and decolonization harder to ignore, Goskar notes. Nearly 60% of Brits now think the Parthenon marbles belong in Greece, while only 18% think they should stay in London.
There are plenty of people in the heritage sector who are sympathetic to the British Museum’s ambition to be ‘a museum of the world, for the world’. Among them is archaeologist Mike Pitts, who says the debate over the marbles “has become more about politics and mud-slinging than anything else… It’s far more helpful to think about the present and the future than about what’s going on.” happened in the past.
“That’s not to say nothing should ever be returned. But I think we need a … broader conversation rather than a few headline, simplistic representations.”
As for a possible way forward, Pitts says: “The British Museum says we like to lend material, and they don’t seem to have any limits on how long that loan can be. So you can imagine that a really important part of the Parthenon collection could effectively be put on permanent display in Athens. But as a loan.”