The Parthenon Marbles on view at the British Museum in London, England (via Wikimedia Commons)

The United Kingdom and Greece have agreed to formal talks regarding the return of the Parthenon marbles, UNESCO announced yesterday, May 17. The contested works have been in London’s British Museum since 1816, after they were taken them from Athens and sold to the British government.

Last September, UNESCO called on the UK to “reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece,” and on April 29, the UK’s minister for arts, Stephen Parkinson, sent a request to organize a meeting with Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni. She immediately accepted and according to UNESCO’s report, the meeting will be arranged “in due course.”

Created between 447 and 432 BCE, the Parthenon marbles depict gods and heroes, an ancient Athenian festival called the “Panathenaea,” and a battle from Greek mythology. Much of the sculptural program has been destroyed, but the majority of what remains is housed at the British Museum.

The marble friezes lined the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, until the turn of the 19th century, when they were removed by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece at the time.

For decades, Greece has asked the UK to return the sculptures: It filed its first formal request back in 1983. Maintaining the country’s firm stance, last March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected the marbles’ return and said they had been acquired completely legally.

A section of the Parthenon frieze at the British Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

In a meeting last November between Johnson and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Johnson said that the return of the sculptures was up to the British Museum, not the UK government. This idea was reiterated at a parliament meeting in February, when Parkinson stated: “Our Prime Minister emphasized the UK’s longstanding position that this is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, who legally own the sculptures. The British Museum operates independently of the Government, meaning that decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for its trustees.”

However, the upcoming talks will take place between the two countries’ ministers of culture, not the Greek minister and the British Museum.

The Parthenon sculptures have continued to make headlines in recent years. In January, Italy sent part of a Parthenon sculpture back to Greece as a long-term loan, which some thought might encourage England to do the same. And last month, the British Museum refused a digital imaging technology organization’s request to create 3D scans of the marbles, which would have been used to produce an exact replica that some saw as a potential solution to the countries’ dispute.

A date has yet to be set for the talks.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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