After decades of resisting Greek demands to return the Parthenon – aka Elgin – Marbles which were taken from the Acropolis in Athens 200 years ago, the British Museum appears to have softened its position after its deputy director said there was now “space” for a “positive conversation”.
“I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found,” said Jonathan Williams of the possible return of the 2,400-year-old friezes.
He said the sculptures were “an absolutely integral part” of the cultural institution but that “we want to change the temperature of the debate”.
Mr Williams suggested a deal would involve the borrowing and lending of objects.
The Marbles were stripped from the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis in Athens by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, alias Lord Elgin, in the early 1800s and shipped to Britain.
He sold the Marbles to the British government, which in 1817 passed them on to the British Museum, where they now remain one of its most prized exhibits.
Greece maintains that the stone carvings were looted ― not given to or bought by the British nobleman ― and that they should be returned.
While the British Museum’s latest proposal is the farthest Greece has gotten since it first formally asked for the artefacts back in 1983, the UK’s offer of a loan may not satisfy calls by the EU member state to recognise their rightful owner.
A staunch advocate for cultural restitution, Roger Michel, director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology at Oxford, told The National that the matter of ownership under English law means that only the UK government can decide on a permanent return.
“The problem is that the British Museum, as trustees and not owners of the Marbles, can only loan the Marbles. Only parliament can give them away,” he said.
“To be clear, Britain's position over the centuries is baffling. No other country on earth has held another country's national treasures prisoner for so long — and in the face of such consistent diplomatic pressure for repatriation.”
Mr Michel, who will next month unveil robot-made replicas made by the institute of some of the ancient marbles displayed at the British Museum, cautioned Greece against taking a hard line on their permanent return.
“It will just make it more difficult to obtain custody in the short term. They have accepted Parthenon sculptures from Italy on a loan basis — why not Britain?” he said.
Earlier this year, an Italian museum in Sicily returned a fragment of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece as part of a permanent loan.
Archaeologists at the Oxford-based institute have used marble from the quarries of Carrara in Tuscany, central Italy, and the advanced technological wizardry of Robotor ― the machine built to reproduce 3D designs with stone materials ― to replicate the two Parthenon sculptures.
They will go on display near the British Museum in September, but Mr Michel has said the ultimate aim would for the replicas to be placed in the London-based institution and the originals returned to sit alongside the remainder of the sawn-off frieze in Athens.
Mr Michel said he was thrilled that the institute’s work may have played a role in achieving the “seismic shift” in the British Museum’s position and would "do whatever we can to support these breakthrough negotiations in the weeks ahead".
Last year, prime minister Boris Johnson ruled out the return of the Marbles, saying they were acquired legitimately by Britain and had been legally owned by the British Museum's trustees.
However, calls for the restitution of colonial-era plunder have been gaining ground, marked by shifts in attitudes and the actions of some institutions.
In June, George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum and a former Conservative government minister, said he believed there was a “deal to be done” to share the priceless artworks, a sentiment also echoed by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.
Last month, the leadership councils of Cambridge and Oxford universities agreed to return hundreds of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in what would pave the way for the largest repatriation of cultural treasures from Britain yet.