Introduced by Liberal Democrat Mark Williams on Monday (11 July), the Parthenon Sculptures (Return to Greece) Bill 2016-17 provides for “the transfer of ownership and return to Greece of the artefacts known as the Parthenon Sculptures, or Elgin Marbles, purchased by Parliament in 1816”.
Originating from the Parthenon, a 2,500 year old temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, the marbles are also known as the Elgin Marbles after Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. As British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin removed the sculptures in what some regard as an improper acquisition from Athens between 1801 and 1805 and sold them to the British Museum in 1816. Greece has lobbied for their repatriation since its victory in the War of Independence in 1832.
In the wake of the EU referendum, Williams’ bill is viewed by its cross-party group of supporters as an important bargaining chip to secure a better deal for the UK in Brexit negotiations. Chair of the British Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, Andrew George, has stated that returning the marbles would demonstrate how leaving the EU “doesn’t involve us becoming inward-looking and xenophobic… but more confident, more able to be gracious”.
Undeterred by the new bill, the British Museum is adamant that the marbles should remain in London. In a statement on the Museum’s website, British Museum trustees reiterate that Lord Elgin “acted with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the day” and that the marbles are a “vital element” in its collection. “The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago, until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story”.
The second reading of the bill will take place in the House of Commons on 20 August 2016.