The Daily Telegraph

Osborne is playing a risky game of political chess with Elgin’s Marbles

The ex-chancellor and chairman of the British Museum is applying all his famous guile to the negotiatio­ns with Greece, says Gordon Rayner


To anyone else, they are marbles. In George Osborne’s hands, however, they have become chess pieces. And the game he is playing could determine the entire future of the country’s finest cultural treasures.

The former chancellor, reincarnat­ed as chairman of the British Museum, has been unable to resist playing politics with the Parthenon Sculptures – better known as the Elgin Marbles. He is daring to grasp a nettle that his predecesso­rs have left well alone, by exploring ways of sending at least some of them back home to Greece.

The risks are great, but so might be the rewards. Perhaps more importantl­y, Osborne has come to the conclusion that doing nothing is not an option.

The Elgin Marbles have long been entwined with a deep sense of Greek nationalis­m. To the Greeks, the marbles are stolen objects with an almost mystical significan­ce; Greece as a nation cannot ever be truly whole until they are back where they belong.

The British Museum’s position is that they were legally acquired. In 1801, Lord Elgin – who was serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time – was granted permission by the Ottomans, who ruled Greece at the time, to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon. The British Museum says it has the documents to prove it.

The Greeks say the documents are a forgery, and that anyway the Ottomans, as an occupying force, never had the right to sell them in the first place. The argument has been rumbling on for decades. A British parliament­ary inquiry in 1816 concluded that Elgin had acquired the marbles legally (he sold them to the British government in that year, after which they passed into the trusteeshi­p of the British Museum – although even then the likes of Lord Byron decried Elgin’s so-called cultural vandalism); in 1983, the Greek government formally asked the UK government to return the marbles to Greece, subsequent­ly listing the dispute with Unesco. In 2021, Unesco called upon the British government to resolve the issue at intergover­nmental level.

That was the year that, in June, George Osborne was elected chairman of the British Museum. Five months later, he had his first meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the

Greek prime minister.

The meeting – and the one that followed it in November last year, with “four or five” below-the-radar meetings with Giorgos Gerapetrit­is, the Greek minister of state – is Osborne’s attempt to come up with what politician­s might call a third way when it comes to the marbles.

Osborne is currently tasked with raising a reported £1 billion under the Rosetta Project, a multi-year modernisat­ion and overhaul of the 270-year-old London museum – which means he has already dusted off his begging bowl. The

Elgin Marbles have become an obstacle. If the museum thumbs its nose at Greece’s high-profile campaign for the return of the sculptures, it could lose donors sensitive to the winds of cultural change. Other museums, after all, are falling over themselves in their haste to return “plundered” objects to their countries of origin.

A significan­t chunk of the money Osborne needs is likely to come from the US (the British Museum has an American Friends fundraisin­g arm) – a country that gives short shrift to Britain’s historic claims of ownership of the marbles. As Alexander Herman, director of the Wales-based Institute of Art and Law, points out, “for any institutio­n, it can be difficult to move forward on other projects, especially major ones, without first settling past accounts”.

On the other hand, culturally conservati­ve donors could pull their funding if the marbles are surrendere­d, not least because of the knock-on effect it could have on the country’s other museums, which could quickly be emptied of colonialer­a acquisitio­ns. There is also a law, specific to the British Museum, which prevents objects in its collection­s being given away.

Osborne’s solution is to propose a partial loan of the sculptures to Athens, in return for a reciprocal loan of some of its own treasures, such as ancient ceramics.

One scenario is for a quarter of the Elgin Marbles to be sent to the purpose-built Acropolis Museum just below the Parthenon itself, for a fixed period, perhaps five years, after which they would be returned and a different quarter would go to Greece, and so on.

Gerapetrit­is and Mitsotakis have made it clear that the idea is a nonstarter. They simply could not sell it to the Greek people as a “win”, and both sides accept that only a “win-win” deal has any chance of success.

The Greeks have always said they want the return of all of the marbles (which constitute around 50 per cent of what survives of the Parthenon’s 2,500-year-old sculptures) and that Britain cannot loan them because, in Greek eyes, it does not own them to begin with.

But there are signs of movement in the Greek position which make a deal a real possibilit­y. Mitsotakis is understood to be happy with a twin track approach, in which the issue of legal ownership is discussed entirely separately from the issue of where the marbles physically reside.

And while the Greeks will not accept Osborne’s “quarter at a time” proposal, there is optimism that they might agree to take perhaps half of the sculptures at a time, partly because they divide logically into two distinct groups – the three-dimensiona­l sculptures from the building’s triangular pediment, and the reliefs that made up a frieze around all four sides of the Parthenon. Reuniting the pediment sculptures, for example, would surely be a genuine coup for the Greeks.

There is much debate within the curatorial world over whether Osborne is serious, or whether he has made a proposal he knows will be rejected, just so that he can pacify prospectiv­e donors by telling them: “I tried my best.” It is a cynical view of his motives, but perhaps an inevitable one given his background as a cabinet minister.

Those who know Osborne insist his offer is genuine and that he believes the negotiatio­ns with Athens will, eventually, prove successful. Whitehall insiders say he also has the tacit backing of government ministers, despite Michele Donelan, the Culture Secretary, saying earlier this week that the marbles “belong here in the UK” and that allowing them to leave the country would “open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums”.

Osborne also has the backing of the museum’s trustees. They include the classicist Dame Mary Beard, who believes the Parthenon Sculptures represent an opportunit­y, rather than a problem.

“Claims of restitutio­n should be seen not just as inconvenie­nces but as possibilit­ies of reforming the relationsh­ip of the museum to other interest groups and other parts of the world,” she told The Daily Telegraph.

“We ought to be working to a solution where everybody feels we can back it and it’s better than it was before.”

Dame Mary does not, however, believe that all objects should be sent back to their countries of origin as a matter of course, nor does she subscribe to Donelan’s thin end of the wedge argument.

“I don’t want to see a world in which people, and nations, and people of different ethnicitie­s mix up more and more and become increasing­ly diverse, but material objects are all sent back to where they came from,” she says. “London is a global city and the diaspora has a stake in this too.

“It’s not about going through a list of objects and deciding where they should be, it’s about who has a right to speak for objects and who owns what. I’m more interested in who sees this material, rather than who owns it.”

Ultimately, she says, “the trustees have to have a very clear idea about the widest view of what the future of the museum is. The big question is, ‘what is an institutio­n like the British Museum for?’”

Osborne’s game of chess goes far beyond the location of a collection of broken stones. Mitsotakis is one of the few centrerigh­t leaders in the EU, making him a useful ally of the UK, particular­ly if he is re-elected in a general election due this spring. He is an Anglophile who has lived in London in the past, and Britain would do well to keep him close.

Talk of returning the Elgin Marbles is likely to crop up in Mitsotakis’s election campaign, and if, as expected, he wins, he will redouble his efforts to reach a deal, though the timescale is more likely to be years than months, according to sources on both sides.

There is an added financial incentive for Osborne to shake on a deal. A reciprocal loan of objects from Greece to the British Museum would lend itself to blockbuste­r exhibition­s of items never before seen in the UK, and while the museum cannot charge for general entry, it can charge for entry to temporary exhibition­s.

Rishi Sunak has ruled out changes to the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits the museum from giving objects away, but sources close to the negotiatio­ns believe that language will be key to any future agreement. Expect words like “loan” to be banished, and lots of talk about “partnershi­p”.

The real sticking point in all of this, then, may be the fear of the knock-on effect it would have on the status of other objects, such as the Rosetta Stone – perhaps the British Museum’s most famous object – and on other museums. Would Osborne be cracking the dam?

Dame Mary insists not. “The more you look at these things, every single case is different,” she said. “People talk about the thin end of the wedge a lot, but every object is different.”

Questions about the political stability of countries that are demanding deaccessio­n, as well as the conditions in which objects are kept, logistical problems in moving them, the accessibil­ity of museums and historical claims of ownership all have to be taken into account.

But at a time when restitutio­n is becoming the norm around the world, Britain’s museums may find themselves swimming against the tide.

‘Claims of restitutio­n should be seen not just as inconvenie­nces but as possibilit­ies’

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? George Osborne, above, is trying to strike a deal with Greece over the Elgin Marbles, right
George Osborne, above, is trying to strike a deal with Greece over the Elgin Marbles, right

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom