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December 6, 2023

The Elgin Marbles: A Historical Dispute of Repatriation

The Elgin Marbles: A Historical Dispute of Repatriation

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of over 30 ancient stone sculptures from Greece, primarily dating back more than 2,000 years and housed in the British Museum. Acquired  by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 1800s during Greece’s occupation by the Ottomans. Most pieces are from the Parthenon in Athens, showcasing scenes from Greek mythology. [1]

            Since Greece gained independence in 1832, there has been a persistent demand for their return, creating an enduring debate with the resistant British government. The 1980s saw a campaign by Greek minister Melina Mercouri, and in 2009, Athens opened the Acropolis Museum to counter safety arguments against repatriation. The debate continues to this day, with differing views within the UK's political landscape.

            Despite ongoing talks between Greece and the British Museum since November 2021, the controversy gained renewed attention when UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly called off a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on November 28, 2023. The intended discussion focused on the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, sparking a global debate and drawing critical comments from both Mitsotakis and UK opposition leader Keir Starmer. “Proper place to display Parthenon Sculptures is in their ‘natural habitat’”, says Deputy Greek Culture Minister Christos Dimas. [2]

            The Elgin Marbles, have become a focal point of global repatriation discussions. Countries like Nigeria and China are also demanding the return of cultural artifacts. Prime Minister Mitsotakis emphasized Greece's claim and strong desire for the sculptures' repatriation, stating they were essentially stolen.[3]

            Despite the canceled meeting, Mitsotakis engaged with opposition leader Starmer. Notably, both Sunak and Starmer, while opposing a permanent return of the Elgin Marbles, present differing approaches to addressing the issue. As the debate intensifies, the fate of the Elgin Marbles remains uncertain, representing a longstanding historical and cultural dispute with far-reaching implications for global discussions on repatriation.


[1]BBC News: What are the Elgin Marbles and how did Britain get them?

https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-30342462

[2]Politico: Greek PM moves to smooth over UK marbles row, as King Charles raises eyebrows

https://www.politico.eu/article/greek-pm-mitsotakis-smooth-uk-elgin-marbles-row-parthenon-king-charles/

[3]Time: Why the U.K.-Greece Dispute Over the Elgin Marbles Is Heating Up

https://time.com/6340252/elgin-marbles-uk-greece/

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