The Parthenon Marbles should be given back to Greece but the shared custody suggested by George Osborn would still be progress.

The Parthenon Marbles, which once decorated the pediments of the Great Parthenon in Athens, are 21 carved figures in deep relief. They were taken in 1801-12 by the Englishman Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and sent to England. Elgin claimed he had permission, a written document from the Sublime Porte, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, which at the time ruled Greece, but his heirs have never been able to produce the document and it is considered to be untrue. Even some of Elgin’s contemporaries, most notably Lord Byron, called it an act of looting. In 1816, Elgin sold the Marbles to the British Government, which has displayed them ever since.

After achieving independence in 1832, Greece requested the marbles back, and were ignored. The United Kingdom did not even begin to formally acknowledge such requests until the 1980s. Since then, arguments for keeping the Parthenon Marbles have included ‘they’ve been here so long,’ ‘more people see them here,’ ‘restitution is a slippery slope to empty museums,’ ‘modern Greeks aren’t descended from ancient Greeks,’ and ‘Greece let them be damaged while the Turks invaded.’

There is, at last, some signs of a softening of this stance. In a radio interview on Tuesday, George Osborne, the current chairman of the British Museum which houses the Marbles, said that sharing the Marbles with Athens could, potentially, be on the table.

Though Osborne repeated the ‘public access’ excuse for keeping the sculptures in London, he also said that a shared arrangement might be suitable.

He did, however, make it clear that he was not making a decision, nor could he. The fate of the Marbles is, currently, in the hands of the BM’s board of Trustees.

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