No 10 rules out law change for return of Parthenon marbles

No plans to amend legislation that could stop removal back to Greece, after secret talks held over their future

Rishi Sunak has ruled out changing a law that could prevent the British Museum from handing the Parthenon marbles back to Greece, after it emerged that trustees have held secret talks with the Greek prime minister about the future of the artefacts.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said there were no plans to amend legislation under which a museum can dispose of objects within its collection only in very limited circumstances. However, it could decide to lend part of the collection to Greece.

The British Museum has said it wants a “new Parthenon partnership with Greece” but that it operates within the law “and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity”.

The former chancellor George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, has been holding talks with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, since November 2021 over the possible return of the sculptures, according to the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea.

However, Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “We have no plans to change the law, which prevents removing objects from the British Museum’s collection apart from in certain circumstances.

“Our position on this hasn’t changed. Decisions relating to the care and management of the collections are a matter for the museum and its trustees. The Parthenon sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and operationally independent of the government.”

The marbles – which decorated the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Athens – were taken by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, and they have been the subject of a long-running dispute over where they should be displayed.

As well as the controversy over the marbles, in recent weeks the Horniman Museum in south London has returned looted bronzes from Benin City to Nigeria, and the Wellcome Collection closed its Medicine Man gallery because it “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.

Downing Street said the public would “vote with their feet” if they disliked museums removing controversial objects from their collections.

“I’m cautious about commenting about how specific museums should display their collections; I think that is rightly a matter for them,” the spokesperson said. “Clearly they will need to justify any decisions made to the public and the public will make a judgment based on voting with their feet on whether they think they’ve got the right balance.”


Pippa Crerar Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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