Athens, Greece – A curator at the British Museum has confirmed that the museum is in talks with the Greek government about the future of the Parthenon Marbles, but told Al Jazeera that a deal would not be difficult.
“There is certainly movement, but it is increasing,” said Mary Beard, a professor of higher education at the University of Cambridge and a trustee from 2020.
“I think something is happening… There have been discussions between [board of trustees chair George] Osborne is [Greek premier Kyriakos] Mitsotakis,” he told Al Jazeera.
The marbles and sculptures were erected on the Acropolis of Athens in 1801 by Lord Elgin, when Greece was under Ottoman rule, and have been exhibited in the British Museum since 1817.
Greece says they make up parts of the monument that are incompatible and should be returned.
“There is a real desire to do something. After 200 years, we can go somewhere better than where we are,” Beard said. “Will the problem go away? I don’t know.”
There was excitement last July, when the British Museum told the Sunday Times that it wanted to talk to Greece about a “cooperation” over the Marbles.
“The British Museum decided to come out and say they were talking [with us] I’m trying to find a solution,” said Eleni Korka, the respected head of antiquities and culture at the Greek Ministry of Culture and a key negotiator since Greece publicly announced its intention to restore the Marbles in 1981.
“This kind of public speaking has never happened before. It’s only been a year. Will they change the policy? Was he forced? Korka told Al Jazeera.
But a statement from the British Museum last November ended any hope of a quick deal.
“We operate within the law and will not liquidate our main collection,” the spokesman said – referring to a 1963 law that prevents the British Museum from giving up any part of its collection.
The British Museum has offered to loan the sculptures to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which was built in 2009 to house them.
Greece is refusing the loan because it would mean ownership of the British Museum, and Greece wants to pay it back.
But Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces an election in May, has been raising hopes.
Last month he told students at the London School of Economics that there was progress and “urgency”.
In early January, sources at the British Museum told reporters that there were “positive discussions” with Greece about the return of the Marbles.
Mitsotakis told the Greek president that his government had made “systematic and quiet” efforts to return the Marbles.
But Michelle Donelan, the UK’s culture minister, has also given up hope, telling BBC Radio 4 that the statues are “local to the UK”.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni called the ongoing negotiations “difficult but not impossible”.
Asked if Greece would consider a loan, he said the country was following red lines.
“Of course [Greek] “The Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture explained that there can be no progress without resolving the issue of ownership, it means that it is not going well,” said Korka.
Controversial from the start
Elgin’s removal of the statues was controversial from the start.
The British House of Lords debated in 1816 whether they had actually obtained permission from the Ottoman government, which at the time ruled Greece.
Elgin himself argued that Marbles was wrongly dismissed, as the Lords’ concern was whether he had used his influence as imperial ambassador in Constantinople to obtain a concession that benefited him.
“Does the permit refer to the removal of the statues, or was it left out of discretion?” the search committee asks.
Elgin replies: “No, it was done by permission; On the contrary, the permission granted by the Porte to any remote area, does not only increase the chances of success with the authorities. “
Elgin’s fellow Philhellene, Lord Byron, bemoaned the removal of the Marbles and mocked Elgin in The Curse of Minerva: “So let him stand, years before he was born, / Set a statue on a base of scorn!
The British Museum says Elgin was “licensed” to “draw, measure and extract figures”. But critics say he stretched to remove more than he intended.
“Among the bribes Elgin is known to have given is 100 pounds to Kaimacam. [district governor] to Constantinople to release the second cargo [of Marbles]and money for Disdar [fortress commander] in Athens equivalent to 35 times his annual salary. Elgin wrote everything he used because he was helped by his mother-in-law,” Korka said.
The British people seem to have moved in favor of restoration.
An Economist poll in 2000 found that two-thirds of British MPs would vote for Mr Marbles to return if the petition was granted.
A Sunday Times poll last August found that 78 per cent of Britons would return the Marbles, and a poll this month by the Evening Standard found that a majority of 53 per cent of Britons favored a return – more than most who voted for Brexit.
“There is a very important change in the UK in public opinion and people who have an opinion on this issue, from all political parties, who are now openly arguing for the reunification of marbles, recognizing that they are different,” said Mitsotakis.
But Elgin was not completely despised, even in Greece.
“It’s true [the Marbles’] the removal saved them from the danger of war and destruction,” says Acropolis archaeologist Manolis Korres, who has spent half a century studying and restoring the Parthenon and other buildings there.
The Turks burned a six-story marble column from the Temple of Zeus to create ash, a concrete block that was used to build a mosque in Monastiraki in 1758. A similar incident befell the nearby temple of the river god Ilissos 20 years later.
The Greeks also destroyed it. “There are some monuments that were completely destroyed during the Greek war of independence,” says Korres. “The statue of Thrasyllos was blown up in 1827, the last year of the revolution. It was blown to smithereens. Elgin took the statue of Dionysos from it, and it is now in the British Museum and was saved.”
But Korres agrees that Marbles must return.
“It’s not right for them to have another museum. The legal question is subjective; 200 years ago slavery was also legal.”
The British Museum reflects a “party, relaxed, racist atmosphere” that will not last, he said.
“If at the beginning of the process I believed that the marble would return 100 percent, now I believe that 1,000 percent …