The Parthenon Marbles have long been at the center of the restitution debate. While talk of their potential return from the British Museum to Greece continues, the long narrative surrounding the artifacts is still thickening.
According to the Art Newspaper, the British government recently declassified documents revealing that the Foreign Office was dismissive of the British Museum’s efforts to retain the Parthenon Marbles in 1983. The question of where the marbles should reside came to the forefront when Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri famously visited London that year. Her “colourful personality and romantic cause attracted considerable interest and media coverage,” government records state.
Worry over losing the debate seems prevalent in the documents, which reportedly note that Mercouri “undoubtedly stole the limelight from her protagonist, David Wilson [director] of the British Museum”, particularly during a televised debate at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Mercouri argued that the marbles “are an integral part of a monument that represents the national spirit of Greece,” to which Wilson rebutted that they are part of an international institution that “should not be dismembered.” Officials at the Foreign Office determined that Mercouri “won the argument hands down” in a victory against their own representative.
Peregrine Rhodes, the British ambassador in Athens, added that “arguments put by Wilson are likely to be counter productive” among the Greeks. Ahead of Mercouri’s visit, he argued that the United Kingdom should embrace the idea. “To fudge the issue can only store up trouble for the future,” he said.
As the debate threatened foreign relations among Europe, Burke Trend, then the British Museum chair, warned the Foreign Office that if the museum trustees were advised by the government “to accommodate” the Greeks, this would create “a very difficult situation.”
John Macrae, the Foreign Office’s head of cultural relations, noted in the report more than 40 years ago that “the problem seemed to me to be one that would be with us for some time to come. We had to live with it and as far as possible contain it.”
The report also recorded sentiments that Brian Cook, the British Museum’s curator of classical antiquities, was just as ineffective at debating Mercouri as Wilson had been. In another meeting during her visit, Cook made “a disappointing and pedantic defence, aimed at proving that Elgin was not guilty of vandalism and that the Parthenon was a symbol of Athenian imperialism, not Greek freedom and nationhood”.
To that point, Macrae wrote that “it is a pity that the BM [British Museum] does not make a more effective defence of their claim to the Marbles.” He added, “The BM should remember that what Parliament giveth, Parliament taketh away.”
Trustees are not allowed to deaccession from the collection because of the 1963 British Museum Act, which is still being used to reject Greek restitution claims today.
Former Labour arts minister Hugh Jenkins proposed amending this act to allow deaccessioning in May 1983, ahead of Mercouri’s visit. The amendment was opposed by the conservative government at the time and failed to pass—a move which arts minister Paul Channon noted in the Foreign Office file. The marbles’ return would “start a process of piecemeal break-up of the British Museum collections,” he said.
Five months later, the Greek government filed a formal claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
As of right now, there is no plan for the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles, although it has been reported that the trustees are now open to a long-term loan in exchange for the loan of other Greek artifacts.