The Memo: Understanding the controversy behind the Parthenon marbles

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History, politics and the law: Understanding the controversy behind the Parthenon marbles

Alice Gregory – 4 December 2023

Here at Chambers Student, we like to delve into the legal issues that are currently in the news and, although this one has certainly hit the headlines, it’s by no means new. The ancient sculptures that are the topic of discussion here are 2,500 years old, and were taken from the Parthenon by British diplomat Lord Elgin at the turn of the 19th century before being sold to the British Museum. This happened at the latter end of the Ottoman occupation of Greece, and the country has since repeatedly asked for the sculptures to be returned after it regained its independence a short time later. Nowadays, the Parthenon marbles would be classified as ‘cultural property’ under international law and would be protected as such, but these concepts did not come into play until long after the marbles had found their home at the British Museum.

That’s the brief historical summary, but what’s going on now? Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited London to meet with Rishi Sunak on 28 November, but Sunak cancelled at the last minute. While Mitsotakis has assured that this won’t affect relations between the countries, he expressed disappointment at the missed opportunity to discuss the marbles. In an interview with the BBC, he called it a matter of reunification and not ownership, likening the situation to cutting the Mona Lisa in half. He also shared how Greece would like to strike a deal which would allow viewers to appreciate the sculptures in their original setting. A conservative spokesperson has firmly stated that the matter is non-negotiable, and the marbles belong at the British Museum. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, who met with Mitsotakis, has claimed that Labour would be open to a loan arrangement.

Thanks to the 1963 British Museum Act, permanently removing the marbles from the museum’s collection is legally prohibited, so they can only be loaned to other exhibitions. That means it’s pretty safe to say that the marbles won’t be returned unless this piece of legislation is scrapped or amended. And, despite Greece’s repeated requests to return the marbles, the British government has stood firm. The Greek government has also chosen to not pursue legal action at the International Court of Justice even though it was suggested in 2015, instead opting for a diplomatic approach to repatriating the relics.

However, aspiring lawyers may be pleased to hear that there is a legal document at the centre of this controversy: a ‘firman’ (i.e., permit) from the ruling Sultan at the time, which has since been lost. However, the legality of the document has been questioned given that its exact wording no longer exists, and the debated translation only granted Elgin permission to take “pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” Nowadays, an airtight contract is of course key to avoiding a breach or dispute, so such an ambiguous document leaves room to question its legality. Evidence has since shown that Elgin sawed and ripped off entire sculptures so, without access to a clearly worded permit that defines what is meant by “pieces of stone,” it is difficult to judge whether his actions were lawful. Adding to the controversy, one of the main arguments justifying the British Museum’s possession of the marbles is that they have been safely protected while kept in its collections. However, the museum damaged the sculptures with harsh metal instruments following a botched cleaning attempt, which was carried out under the false assumption that the marbles were meant to be a bright white colour.

So, while phrases such as ‘contracts’ and ‘damages’ may play a key part of the discussion, it seems unlikely that this will come to a purely legal conclusion. It’s been hundreds of years since the marbles were taken and all that can be proved is that Elgin was given a permit and that the British Museum did buy the marbles from him. That said, other artefacts that were taken by Elgin to Sicily have since been returned to Greece. Some seem hopeful that the increased attention will help bring about a solution, but we have yet to see whether there will be a diplomatic agreement any time soon.