British Museum defiant London is best place for Elgin Marbles as Greece seek their return

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The Elgin marbles were removed from the Acropolis more than 200 years ago (PA) (PA Archive)
The Elgin marbles were removed from the Acropolis more than 200 years ago (PA) (PA Archive)

Trustees at the British Museum have reaffirmed their belief that the Elgin Marbles should remain in London despite growing pressure from Greece.

The British Museum issued a lengthy statement fending off Greece’s renewed bid to seek the return of ancient sculptures removed from the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens more than 200 years ago.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the 2,500-year-old sculptures were “stolen” from Athens and “belong in the Acropolis Museum” which has a space left empty if the Marbles are ever returned.

A British Museum spokesperson, referring to the Elgin Marbles as the Parthenon sculptures, told the Standard: “The Parthenon sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They’re a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.

“The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (about half of what survives from the ancient world) to be appreciated against the backdrop of Athenian history.

“The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history.

“Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered.

“The Trustees firmly believe that there’s a positive advantage and public benefit in having the sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.”

Giannis Oikonomou, a government spokesman, told reporters the issue would be raised at a scheduled meeting in London on Tuesday between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Mr Johnson earlier this year ruled out returning the marbles to Greece, telling Greek newspaper Ta Nea: “I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed Prime Minister Mitsotakis – on the issue.

“But the UK Government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s Trustees since their acquisition.”

Britain’s Lord Elgin chiseled off roughly half the sculptures that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon in the early 1800s, when Greece was an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire. Later, he sold them to the British Museum.

“The obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures is entirely up to the government of the United Kingdom,” Mr Oikonomou said.

He added that the Greek request for government-to-government talks on the issue was backed by the United Nations’ cultural agency, Unesco.

Greece has said the new Acropolis Museum that opened in 2009 would be used to display the sculptures if they were returned.

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