In the previous couple of weeks, we now have been recurrently reminded that secret talks have been going down between the Greek authorities and the British Museum over the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece. As quickly the discussions grew to become public data, a wave of optimism swept the media, culminating in The London Instances congratulating the previous British chancellor and chair of the British Museum, George Osborne, on brokering the deal. However as accolades had been prematurely showered on the British Museum, I watched in astonishment and bit my lip.

As a world authorized professional who spent the previous two years engaged on the deserves of the repatriation declare for my guide The Parthenon Marbles and Worldwide Legislation, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was not it but. Or was I lacking one thing? The overall euphoria will need to have been triggered by one thing grander than Osborne’s modest concession that “there’s a deal to be achieved” and his obvious willingness to mortgage the marbles to Greece? Absolutely by now we all know higher than to put our hopes in silky rhetoric of this type that appears to make guarantees it has not made?

Apparently, we don’t. The necessity to make-believe is so robust that we grasp on the slightest alternative and picture that finally the marbles will likely be going house. The British journalist Andrew Marr not too long ago captured this temper of exasperation in The New Statesman, when he known as on the museum to return the marbles: “Give them again. For goodness’ sake, simply give them again.”

Possession vs. possession

If a mortgage is what’s on supply, then Greece can’t settle for it. A mortgage would imply that the British Museum doesn’t solely possess the marbles however it additionally owns them – a phenomenal illustration of the authorized slogan “Possession is 9 tenths of the regulation”, should you possess them, you personal them. However Greece doesn’t recognise what the museum doesn’t have: possession. The museum has 9 tenths of the regulation. It has possession. And the museum is aware of that. A proposal of a mortgage is a bait with penalties for the Greek declare below worldwide regulation and the Greeks are proper to watch out for the British Museum bearing items. A mortgage isn’t repatriation and doesn’t take care of the underlying matter of possession.

Let’s cease hiding behind our thumbs. The dispute in regards to the Parthenon marbles is not only about the place they need to greatest be positioned. It’s also primarily a dispute about possession. It’s a dispute about rights and wrongs, and the necessity to redress a previous flawed.

A customer walks within the ‘Parthenon room’ of the Acropolis museum in Athens, dedicated to the sculptures of the Temple of Parthenon.
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

Heidelberg College and the Antonino Salinas Museum in Palermo have already handed to Athens the Parthenon fragments beforehand saved of their collections. In December final 12 months, Pope Francis introduced that the Vatican will likely be returning its fragments. The British Museum, which holds about half the surviving sculpture from the Parthenon, must observe their instance. Does anybody think about that 200 years from now, the Greeks will nonetheless need to clamour for the marbles’ return? I don’t. It’s inevitable that the marbles will go house quickly, though I don’t imagine that the museum is aware of that but.

Shifting attitudes

Each the museum and the present authorities proceed to withstand repatriation. However how lengthy can they maintain out in opposition to mounting opposition? One thing has been basically altering and it’ll turn out to be unattainable for the British Museum and the federal government to cling on to the marbles for for much longer. Attitudes internationally towards the return of cultural heritage have been evolving. Altering attitudes matter. They present that what was acceptable up to now, now not is. Altering attitudes additionally form worldwide regulation. Societies evolve. The regulation adjustments in consequence.

Now could be the time for the noble grand gesture, and it has the assist of the British public. Ed Vaizey stated it: returning the marbles can be “the large factor to do”. It will be the magnanimous factor to do.

Alternate options do exist. Bear in mind what occurred to Hans Sloane’s bust within the British Museum? Hans Sloane was the museum’s founding father, and his bust was as soon as proudly displayed. However he was additionally a slave-owner. A scandal erupted a few years in the past in regards to the show of his bust within the British Museum. Oliver Dowden, then British tradition secretary, warned nationwide museums in opposition to eradicating contested cultural objects from their collections. And the British Museum responded: we is not going to.

Positive, technically, Sloane’s bust was not eliminated. However the place is it now? It was quietly transferred to a glass cupboard, and Sloane was described as a slave proprietor. For 2 years, I lived on a London avenue named after Sloane, and for shut to 10 in a neighbourhood strewn with streets and buildings named after him or members of his household. I by no means gave it a second thought. I truthfully had no thought who Sloane was. However now I do know. The museum’s preliminary resistance to the removing of Sloane’s bust did extra hurt to it than swiftly taking duty and performing accordingly would have achieved. Welcome to altering occasions.

The way forward for deaccessioning below debate

A sensible element stays, a thorny challenge of attainable battle between the federal government and the museum. How ought to the marbles be repatriated? Ought to nationwide museums have the fitting to “deaccession” objects of their collections on authorized or ethical grounds? In October final 12 months, the federal government determined to delay the entry into power of two provisions of the Charities Act 2022 that might enable nationwide museums topic to statutory bans on deaccessioning (the British Museum is one in every of them) to take away objects from their collections on ethical grounds.

Ought to the museum return them or ought to parliament move an act transferring them to Athens? From a authorized viewpoint, I’d a lot reasonably the UK authorities handed an act transferring the marbles to Greece. An act vested their curation within the British Museum. An act can ship them again house. Higher whereas it’s nonetheless the magnanimous factor to do. With pomp. Historical past will keep in mind.

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