In recent years, the British Museum has been subject to criticism for its ownership of many items in its collection which were acquired during Britain’s colonial era. Many have called for the repatriation of such artifacts to their country of origin and among the most-discussed items are the Elgin Marbles, which were originally part of the Greek Parthenon. However, the repatriation debate remains extremely complicated due to the legislation pertaining to the British Museum and a lack of applicable legal statutes.
What is the British Museum?
The British Museum was created from the donations of Sir Hans Sloane, an avid collector of historical artifacts who acquired existing collections throughout his global travels as a physician. Sloane died at the age of 92 in 1753 and his will left the entirety of his collection to King George II under the conditions that his heirs received £ 20,000 (equivalent to about £ 2,533,000 today) and that his collection be used to create a free museum for the public. The British Museum was created in the same year through the British Museum Act of 1753 and became the first free national museum in world history, retaining its free admission today.
The British Museum differs from other museums because the British Museum Act states that the collection is legally owned and managed by a Board of Trustees. Because it is managed by Trustees, the Museum operates under common law governing trusts and fiduciary duty which regulates its ability to both loan and sell objects within the Museum collection. The Trustees are legally required to protect the collection and keep it intact which poses an obstacle to efforts related to artifact repatriation.
The Elgin Marbles
Although there are numerous artifacts in the British Museum’s possession which have faced calls for repatriation, the most famous are the Elgin Marbles from the Greek Parthenon. The Elgin Marbles at the Museum include 15 metopes, 17 figures and 247ft (75m) of the original frieze. The Parthenon was left in disrepair for over 100 years before Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, gained permission to purchase and transport several of the remaining statues to Britain. The sale was investigated and determined to be legal by the 1816 Parliamentary Select Committee within the UK and was also approved by the Greek government.
Lord Elgin removed half of the existing sculptures on the Parthenon along with other sculptures and architecture from the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia on the Acropolis. Although the sale of the artifacts was legal, it is highly contested how many sculptures Lord Elgin was permitted to take. He sold the pieces, now called the Elgin Marbles, in 1815 to the British Museum, where they have remained since 1816.
Relevant Legal Statutes
The first call for the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles was made in 1943 by a British Museum Trustee. The Greek government officially requested repatriation in 1983 but was denied due to the legal requirements of Trustees to protect and maintain the collection. The fight for repatriation has escalated since but legal precedents have not answered the quandary of item repatriation. The UK accepted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which regulates illicitly traded goods after 1970, as well as the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, which increased the statute of limitations for the claimant to file under the 1970 Convention, but neither provide guidance for similar issues that occurred in the distant past.
There are also legal facets of the British Museum Act that impede repatriation. For instance, Section 5 of the 1963 British Museum Act allows the British Museum Trustees to relinquish custody of an object only under 3 conditions, namely:
If the artifact was made after 1850.
If the artifact is a duplicate.
If the artifact is “unfit” and no longer valuable to students’ educational pursuits.
Section 47(2) further allows the British Museum to repatriate human remains in its collection if the individual lived in the last 1000 years. This clause is included for artifacts that are former living human beings and neither applies to skeletons over 1000-years-old nor other material objects in which the skeletons are embedded.
There is no international legal standing which requires the repatriation of artifacts stolen by colonisers and if there was, it would not apply to the Elgin Marbles because the sale was deemed legal at the time of purchase by both governments. The Holocaust Act of 2009 gave Trustees permission to repatriate cultural objects related to events that occurred during the Nazi reign under a moral challenge, indicating that Parliament has the legal power to support repatriation efforts. No similar act has yet to pass related to other cultural objects.
The Current Debate
Differences in opinion on whether the Elgin Marbles should be repatriated are guided by cultural internationalism and cultural nationalism. Cultural internationalists believe that cultural property should be experienced by the world and held in museums where they can be best accessed, researched and preserved. This perspective holds that artifacts should be seen and enjoyed by the world and situated in world history. The British Museum’s Trustees fall in this category and state that the Museum’s collection has an extensive “breadth and depth of its collection,” including the Parthenon sculptures, which are “part of the world's shared heritage [that] transcend political boundaries.”
Furthermore, the British Museum’s website states that:
“[t]he Trustees firmly believe that there's a positive advantage and public benefit in having the sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.”
It further refutes the argument that the sculptures belong together and can be reunited because there is no physical way that the sculptures could be reconstructed on the Parthenon due to its state of ruin.
This perspective is juxtaposed by that of cultural nationalists who believe that cultural property should remain within its country of origin and understood in relation to the identity, personhood and community from which it originated. Those who support repatriation fall in this category, arguing that the Elgin Marbles should remain on the Acropolis regardless of the history of neglect shown for the structure because it should be appreciated in a culturally relevant location.
There has been significant support for repatriation of the Elgin Marbles and artifacts in all museums from global leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping (2019) and French President Emmanuel Macron (2020). Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC has been a lead advocate for the return of the Elgin Marbles, writing in his book Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure that the British Museum is “the world’s largest receivers of stolen property.” He has further supported the repatriation of items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre.
The Future of the Elgin Marbles
The European Union halted Brexit trade negotiations with the UK in 2020 until the British Museum repatriated the Parthenon but this did not produce any movement on the issue. In 2021, Italy’s Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum loaned the Acropolis Museum the Fagan fragment, which is the foot of a statue of Artemis from the Parthenon. This was arranged through an 8 year cultural loan in return for a 5th century BC statue of Athena and an 8th century BC Amphora from the Acropolis Museum under a four year cultural exchange loan.
While some argue that this supports the possibility of repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, both are short term loans rather than true repatriation of the artifacts back to the ownership of the Greek government. Furthermore, the British Museum Director plainly stated in 2019 that the Elgin Marbles will never be given back to Greece unless through a short term loan program; the only way for this loan to occur is for the Greek government to acknowledge the British Museum’s legal ownership of the items which it will not do.
There does not seem to be an end in sight for the repatriation debate and no clear answer for the future of items in this debate. Conversations related to acknowledgement and ownership must continue to be discussed and debated to ensure that the full story of all artifacts are shared with the public.