Rishi Sunak has ruled out changing a law that could prevent the British Museum from returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, after it emerged trustees held secret talks with the Greek Prime Minister over the future of the artifacts.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said there were no plans to change legislation under which a museum can only dispose of items from its collection in very limited circumstances. However, he could decide to lend part of the collection to Greece.
The British Museum said it wants a ‘new Parthenon partnership with Greece’ but that it operates within the law ‘and we are not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity’.
Former Chancellor George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum, has been in talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis since November 2021 about the sculptures’ possible return, according to Greek daily Ta Nea.
However, Sunak’s official spokesperson said: ‘We have no intention of changing the law, which prevents objects from being removed from the British Museum’s collection except in certain circumstances.
“Our position on this has not changed. Decisions about the care and management of the collections rest with the museum and its trustees. The Parthenon Sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and are operationally independent of the government.
The marbles – which decorated the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple in the Acropolis of Athens – were taken by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and they have been the subject of a long dispute over where they should be displayed.
Adding to the Marbles controversy, in recent weeks the Horniman Museum in south London returned bronzes looted from Benin City in Nigeria, and the Wellcome Collection closed its Medicine Man gallery because it “perpetuates a version of medical history based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.
Downing Street said the public would “vote with their feet” if they didn’t like museums removing controversial items from their collections.
“I am cautious about comments on how specific museums should present their collections; I think that’s rightly a question for them,” the spokesperson said. “Obviously they’ll have to justify any decision they make to the public and the public will pass judgment by voting with their feet as to whether they think they’ve struck the right balance.”