UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on March 13 told reporters that the British government has “no plans” to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece, despite recent reports to the contrary. “The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations,” said Sunak, as first reported in The Guardian. “Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country,” Sunak continued. “We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”
Sunak’s comments echo those of his disgraced predecessors Liz Truss and, more distantly, Boris Johnson, both of whom spoke out strongly against repatriation of the objects, also known as the Elgin marbles. The antiquities at issue include a number of metopes and seventeen pedimental figures, as well as a nearly 250-foot section of a frieze portraying a festival procession celebrating the birthday of the Greek goddess Athena. All were taken from Acropolis in 1801 by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, at the time the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which allegedly gave him permission to do so. Elgin shepherded the marbles out of the country and sold them to trustees of the British Museum, in whose possession they have remained since 1816.
Greece has actively lobbied for the marbles’ return since 1983, arguing that consent offered by officials of a no-longer-extent regime is meaningless and that the objects were taken without the permission of the Greek people. Their campaign has gained ground in recent years as museums have moved to restore looted objects to their rightful home nations. British Museum chair George Osborne has consistently resisted repatriation; instead, the institution offered up the marbles to Greece as a long-term loan. That offer was rejected earlier this year by Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Additionally complicating matters is the 1963 British Museum Act, which imposes strict rules regarding sales, exchanges, and disposals of items in the care of the country’s institutions. In order for the marbles to be permanently repatriated, British ministers would have to amend the act. The Guardian reports that this is unlikely at present.