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The Parthenon sculptures consist of marble, architecture and architectural sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, acquired by Lord Elgin between 1799 and 1810. Often referred to as both the Elgin Marbles and the Parthenon marbles, “Parthenon sculptures” is the British Museum’s preferred term.

Lord Elgin’s authority to obtain the sculptures was the subject of a Select Committee inquiry in 1816. It found they were legitimately acquired, and Parliament then voted the funds needed for the British Museum to acquire them later that year.   

They are now held under the terms of the British Museum Act 1963.

From the time of the Museum’s acquisition, there have been suggestions that the sculptures be returned to Athens. 

Greek Government position  

In October 1983, following support at UNESCO the previous year, the Greek Government made a formal request to the UK Government for their return. The request was formally rejected by the UK in April 1984. 

The Greek Government later made a case for a change in location, rather than a change in ownership. It argued for the return of the sculptures in order to reunite the collection, which would be displayed in a new Acropolis Museum. Its case was set out in a memorandum to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2000 as part of the latter’s inquiry into cultural property.

In May 2015, it was reported that the Greek Government had both sought and rejected advice for taking legal action against the UK for the retrieval of the sculptures. The BBC reported that Greece’s culture minister would pursue “a diplomatic and political approach” instead.

UK Government position 

The UK Government’s policy continues to be that “Issues relating to the ownership and management of the Parthenon sculptures are matters for the trustees of the British Museum.”

British Museum position

The Museum’s general position is set out in a letter of 26 March 2015 to address the UNESCO mediation proposal (described below):

The British Museum […] is not a government body, and the collections do not belong to the British Government. The Trustees of the British Museum hold them not only for the British people, but for the benefit of the world public, present and future. The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences. 

UNESCO proposal for mediation with Greece

In 2013 UNESCO, at the request of the Greek Government, proposed a process of mediation in relation to the Parthenon sculptures. The process would involve the British Museum, the UK Government and the Greek Government, and would be facilitated by UNESCO.

In 2015 both the UK Government and the British Museum declined the request.  

The UK Government stated in its response to UNESCO that: 

We have seen nothing to suggest that Greece’s purpose in seeking mediation on this issue is anything other than to achieve the permanent transfer of the Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum to Greece and on terms that would deny the British Museum’s right of ownership, either in law or as a practical reality. Given our equally clear position, this leads us to conclude that mediation would not carry this debate substantially forward. 

The British Museum in its own response explained:

The Trustees would want to develop existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures, not on a government-to-government basis but directly between institutions. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward. Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united in a shared endeavour to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy for all humanity. 

Campaign groups

In the UK, the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and Marbles Reunited are both campaigning for the return of the Parthenon sculptures.

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