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Losing our Marbles

Time to return the British Empire’s plunder?

After years of Greek protest, the British Museum was on the verge of not exactly giving back the precious Elgin Marble statues, but of offering them on extended loan, without a specified time limit. It seemed like diplomacy in action, with no loss of face. But a new row exploded in February after the museum was accused of trivialising the Parthenon Sculptures by allowing a London Fashion Week show to take place in the gallery where they are held. Designer Erdem Moralıoğlu said his show was a tribute to American-Greek singer Maria Callas and he wanted to use the Duveen Gallery since it was a “space that epitomised her Greekness”. But the Greeks didn’t see it that way, with Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, noting: “By organising a fashion show in the halls where the Parthenon Sculptures are exhibited, the British Museum, once again, proves its zero respect for the masterpieces of Pheidias.” The proposed deal had already hit a stumbling block, with neither side able to agree on a plan in which long-term loans of other Greek treasures could fill the gaps left by the seventeen repatriated sculptures.

The 2,500-years-old marbles were originally removed from the Parthenon in the early nineteenth century by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at that time. He claimed to have been given permission by the Ottomans for the transfer of the marbles, but documentation to support this claim has never been discovered. The marbles are far from the only treasure to have been “appropriated” or perhaps “plundered” by the Brits, particularly during the colonial days of the empire. Our museums bulge with treasures from around the globe, and ownership controversies are increasing. One of the most recent involves two moai figures, taken from Easter Island by British surveyors in 1868 and also exhibited in the British Museum. An online campaign, launched at the beginning of the year, has called for them to be returned to the people of the island. Is it time, then, for our museums to take stock and return all these treasures to their rightful owners?

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