Friday briefing: The latest twist in the 200-year dispute over the Parthenon marbles

In today’s newsletter: Greece and the UK have opened talks over the future of the so-called ‘Elgin marbles’ – what will happen next?

Good morning. The British Museum’s Parthenon marbles – often known as the Elgin marbles after British ambassador Lord Elgin, who had the artefacts extracted from Athens in the early 19th century – have long been mired in controversy. Elgin’s claims that the items were acquired legally remain heavily disputed long after his death and, even in 1816, he was met with both support and criticism. He later sold the sculptures to the museum, where they remain today despite increasing dissent, including from Greece.

Elgin’s was an act, said Stephen Fry this week, akin to “removing the Eiffel Tower from Paris or Stonehenge from Salisbury”. Fry, who has been advocating for the return of the sculptures, made the comments as this contentious two century long debate appeared to take another turn, with the news that talks have reportedly been going on for the past year between Britain and Greece about their fate.

As broader conversations have emerged about the British empire’s legacy around the world, the question of restitution in all of its contexts feels more poignant than ever. For today’s newsletter I spoke with the Guardian’s chief culture writer, Charlotte Higgins, about why the conversation is shifting – and what might happen next.

Five big stories

  1. US | The Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, has failed to get elected as speaker of the House for the 11th time after eight hours of voting. It is the first time in a century that the House has not chosen a speaker on the first ballot.

  2. Strikes | The government has announced anti-strike legislation to enforce “minimum service levels” in key public sectors including the NHS and schools. Under the laws, employers will be allowed to sack workers if minimum levels are not met. It has attracted fury from unions who have said they will continue to defend workers’ rights.

  3. Twitter | Email addresses from more than 200m Twitter accounts have been stolen and leaked onto an online hacking forum. Twitter has not commented on the report but the breach will likely lead to a lot of hacking, targeted phishing and doxxing, says a cybersecurity firm.

  4. Monarchy | Prince Harry has written in his highly anticipated autobiography that he sought help from a woman who “claimed to have ‘powers’” and relayed a message to him from his late mother, Princess Diana. “You’re living the life she couldn’t,” Harry says the woman told him.

  5. Politics | Rishi Sunak has been accused of misleading the public over emergency NHS funding. Hospitals and councils say they have not received £300m to free up beds that was first promised four months ago.

In depth: ‘The whole conversation has become hotter – the public are starting to think differently’

The British Museum in London.
The British Museum in London. Photograph: Kamira/Alamy

While the Parthenon marbles are not like the Benin bronzes – artefacts that were unequivocally looted in a violent attack against a country – the discussion around the sculptures brings to the fore questions of ownership, legitimacy and preservation.

As discussions of this kind turn into action in many places – with the pope ordering that three Parthenon fragments be returned from the Vatican, and Germany handing over 22 Benin bronzes at the end of last year – Britain has come under further pressure to repatriate the artefacts it has held for centuries.


Why is the tide turning?

For many years this debate was in deadlock – Greece refused to acknowledge Britain’s ownership, while Britain did not seem to care and held on. But an unlikely protagonist re-energised the debate: George Osborne. The former chancellor, who since 2021 has a role (yes, another one) as chair of the British Museum, began talks with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis about the possible return of the sculptures. (Culture secretary Michelle Donelan is not on board, however, saying that returning the marbles would be a “dangerous” and “slippery” road – because others may decide they want their stuff back too.)

Charlotte says that there are three main reasons why things are changing: the public mood, the stance of the British Museum, and the role of museums in society. “The whole discussion about cultural restitution has become hotter generally and I think the wider public, outside the museum’s portals, are starting to think quite differently about it,” she says. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Parthenon Project, a group that campaigns for their restitution (and of which Fry is a member), found that 53% supported the return, 20% said they had no strong opinion either way, and 21% were opposed. There now also seems to be a real will in the British Museum to settle this issue. “I think George Osborne has decided that something’s got to change on his watch,” Charlotte adds.

More generally, there is a re-evaluation at present of what it means to be a museum in the modern world. To many, they are no longer viewed as neutral spaces, guarding or caring for sacred, ancient treasures, but as “institutions that are rooted, very often, in histories of imperialism, and therefore have some kind of responsibility to become sites of reconciliation and atonement”, Charlotte says. The (perhaps reluctant) recognition of this ethical responsibility has changed the tenor of this conversation.


Why has it taken so long?

Tourists take a picture in front of the temple of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.
Tourists take a picture in front of the temple of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. Photograph: Costas Baltas/Reuters

For a long time many were looking to legislation as a way to move the sculptures back to Greece, but this was an increasingly futile effort. The British Museum would say that its hands were tied legally and that the government would have to change its legislation, while the government would put the onus back on the museum’s board of trustees as the legal owners of the marbles.

This “impasse”, Charlotte says, “worked in a very convenient way because it preserved the status quo”. But it has become clear that this way of understanding ownership is highly limiting. “These objects were created well before any kind of British legal framework was invented. There’s a sense that, in order to break out of this, a different way of thinking has to be developed,” Charlotte says.


So what happens next?

This centuries-long saga will probably go on for a while yet. There is no indication that Britain plans to – or even can – cede ownership of the Parthenon marbles outright. However, Osborne has reportedly drawn up a deal that facilitates some kind of long-term “cultural exchange”. It will not be a loan because that would require Greece to acknowledge that Britain is the owner of the 2,500 year old artefacts.

In the not-so-distant future, the empty space in the airy Acropolis museum for the remaining parts of the sculptures may finally be filled. But if, or when, that day comes there’s no need to worry that the British Museum will stand an empty husk of its former self. There are literally millions of other objects – many with their own conflicted histories – that it can display.

What else we’ve been reading

Commuters wear face masks on the underground on January 04, 2023 in London, England.
Commuters wear face masks on the underground on January 04, 2023 in London, England. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
  • Despite the fact that Covid and flu cases are all on the rise, face masks seem to still be in the back recesses of most people’s minds. Stephen Reicher unpacks where this aversion came from and why masking up in these periods, albeit uncomfortable, might be the best thing we can do for each other. Nimo

  • There was only one winner between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in the battle of the Big Speeches, writes Polly Toynbee. However, she warns: “Today’s speech set Labour on course for victory. But the party still has to win.” Charlie Lindlar, production editor, newsletters

  • If you are wondering why The 1975’s Matty Healy is trending every week, then you’ll want to read this piece by Shaad D’Souza on how pop stars are changing the way they perform on tour to ensure viral moments. Nimo

  • After NFL player Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field on Monday night, how do his peers carry on playing the violent, unpredictable game they love? The “chilling and powerful” brotherhood they feel for one another, writes former pro RK Russell. Charlie

  • Michael Coulter’s story of a birthday present that turned into a cyclone is this week’s edition of the Guardian’s My Bad Trip series – and perhaps trumps them all. Nimo


Football | Man City has moved to within five points of Arsenal in the Premier League after beating Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Tennis | Emma Raducanu tearfully retired from the ASB Classic in New Zealand after rolling her ankle, 11 days ahead of the Australian Open. The British No1 criticised the tournament’s indoor court conditions, saying they were “incredibly slick, very slippery, so it’s not a surprise that this happened to someone”.

Cricket | “Mavericks don’t often get the big jobs – Ben Stokes has shown everyone the value of doing things differently,” writes Andy Bull of England’s bold new captain. Under Stokes’s cavalier leadership, the team is not just winning, but joyful, enjoyable, cricket.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 6 January 2023

Our Guardian print splash today is “Unions attack PM’s plan to sack workers who break strike rules”. William, Harry and a “crisis for royal family” is on there as well, and leads other papers. Let’s set the scene: “Harry spills his secrets in devastating memoir” says the Times. “Please don’t marry Camilla” – one of the more mild revelations leads the Telegraph. “Harry: I did coke and weed” – that’s the Sun which refers to a “punch-up” between the brothers, making it sound rather less one-sided than Harry’s book claims. “Reconcile? But you sold your soul, Harry” says the Daily Express while the Daily Mail has “Oh spare us!” in riposte to his “litany of excruciating attacks on family”. “It’s all over now” – the Daily Mirror pictures smiling William and Harry as little boys in their school uniforms. The i says “UK monarchy facing its worst crisis for 30 years”. Never mind all that in the Financial Times where the lead story is “No 10 unveils anti-strike law to enforce ‘minimum service levels’ in key areas”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley in Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu.
Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley in Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Photograph: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures

Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street (Netflix)
It’s 1992 and business is booming on the 19th floor of the Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan. Here, Wall Street statesman Bernie Madoff presides over his “risk-less” trading empire – in fact, a Ponzi scheme worth $64bn. While entertaining, this docuseries also gives due voice to the victims whose stories are so often overlooked in white collar crimes. Chitra Ramaswamy

Iggy Pop – Every Loser

In recent years, Pop has seemed on a mission to do anything but rock with his shirt off, including turning unlikely jazz crooner for 2009’s Préliminaires and becoming a much-loved BBC 6 Music DJ. At 75, he has suddenly returned to harder rocking, though bite-size tracks mean that Every Loser’s main flaw is that you’re left wanting more. Dave Simpson

A sick feeling of dread propels Chinonye Chukwu’s powerful movie about Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old tortured and lynched in 1955 Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. It is also about the boy’s mother Mamie Till, and her courageous campaign for justice. A sombre study of the human cost involved in resisting this kind of barbarity. Peter Bradshaw

Awe by Dacher Keltner
Keltner, a bestselling author and psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has embarked on a journey to find “awe” in a wide range of sources. Describing his visit to San Quentin state prison, he anticipates an oft-made criticism of the self-help genre: that the author’s proposed remedy can only be taken up by those familiar with cashmere blankets. Edward Posnett

Today in Focus

Trump supporters inside the US Capitol during the January 6 attack

Will Donald Trump finally face criminal charges for January 6?

After interviewing 1,000 witnesses and compiling a report more than 800 pages long, the inquiry into the assault on the Capitol is complete. But what will it mean for Donald Trump in 2023 – and his presidential bid?

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings on the king’s reaction to Prince Harry’s book

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

One of twelve new stamps , showing Dave Murray, Bruce Dickinson and Janick Gers in Rio de Janeiro, January 2001, to honour British heavy metal band, Iron Maiden.
One of twelve new stamps , showing Dave Murray, Bruce Dickinson and Janick Gers in Rio de Janeiro, January 2001, to honour British heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. Photograph: Royal Mail/PA

Iron Maiden have received a seal of approval from an unlikely source: Royal Mail.
Following the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the heavy metal band are the latest group to get their own limited edition stamp collection. The set of 12 stamps will be available to order from 5 January, before going on sale a week later.

Bassist Steve Harris said: “We were all absolutely astounded – in a good way – when we first heard about the commemorative project, and equally pretty much speechless when we saw the stamps for the first time. They look superb and really capture the essence and energy of Maiden.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.


Nimo Omer

The GuardianTramp

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