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Return or Retain? The Parthenon Marbles Debate, with Noel Malcolm and Ed Vaizey

For almost 40 years, the Marbles have been at the centre of the great restitution debate

For almost 40 years, the Parthenon Marbles, or Elgin Marbles as they are also known, have been at the centre of the great restitution debate. Taken from Greece in contested circumstances by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, the marble sculptures that were part of the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis are housed in the British Museum. UK law prevents the museum from giving away objects in its collection, but the organisation’s chair, former chancellor George Osborne, is said to be in talks to loan the statues to Greece long term in exchange for other ancient artworks.

So should the marbles go back?

Of course, cry the voices calling for restitution. As Evangelos Kyriakidis, director of The Heritage Management Organisation puts it: ‘It’s sovereignty. Having a Greek national symbol in a museum called the British Museum is totally wrong. It’s as if the Crown Jewels were in Greece.’ Whether or not Lord Elgin acquired them legally, the Parthenon Marbles were taken without the consent of the Greek people and returning them would give a huge boost to Greek cultural identity. And let’s face it, there isn’t very much that’s British in the British Museum – the very name smacks of an imperialist mindset that was all too eager to snaffle up the artefacts of other cultures to put on show in the heart of the Empire. In addition, Greece has now created proper conditions for the marbles’ display and preservation in its purpose-built gallery in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. No one who has visited this museum and seen the stark white plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London interspersed among the original pieces Elgin left behind could fail to acknowledge that Athens is where these outstanding sculptures belong. Britain should agree to replace the marbles with high-tech 3-D printed replicas and send the originals back to Greece.

But that argument entails all kinds of suppositions about ownership that simply don’t apply to the Parthenon Marbles, argue those who think the sculptures should remain. They have been in London for so long and inspired so many generations of British artists and historians that they could as easily be said to belong culturally to Britain as to Greece. But many would go further and say that they belong to the world. They are human history, not stones to be traded around. And in that context the British Museum – the embodiment of ‘the universal museum’ – is the perfect institution to house them, a place where they can be admired in the context of other civilisations and seen by many more than would ever visit them in Athens.


Return the marbles

Ed Vaizey (Lord Vaizey of Didcot)

Former UK Government Culture and Digital Minister from 2010-16, who writes and broadcasts regularly on politics and culture

Member of the House of Lords since 2020.  He served on the Communications and Media Select Committee between 2020 and 2023.  He was the Member of Parliament for Wantage between 2005 and 2019 and served as the UK Government Culture and Digital Minister from 2010-16, the longest-serving minister in that role.  He was appointed a privy councillor in 2016. Vaizey now presents his own show on Times Radio every Friday evening, and writes and broadcasts regularly on politics and culture. In the private sector, Vaizey is an adviser to a number of companies, technology funds and technology start-ups. He currently serves as chairman of the UK-ASEAN Business Council, a trustee of Tate, and a governor of St Paul’s School, London.   In his role as digital minister, Ed was responsible for the roll-out of the successful rural broadband programme to more than 4 million homes, the introduction of 4G, and tax credits for film, television, animation and video games. He also helped persuade Lucas Films to make the new Star Wars in the UK, and received an on-screen credit in the first film of the series. In addition, he played a key role in putting coding in the national curriculum for schools, and in attracting inward investment to the UK tech economy. In his role as culture minister, he published the first White Paper on Culture in the UK for 50 years, introduced a national music education programme, and established English Heritage as a stand-alone charity.
Retain the marbles

Sir Noel Malcolm

Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford

Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.. He studied History and English Literature at Peterhouse, Cambridge and began his career as a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He was then political columnist and, subsequently, Foreign Editor of the Spectator. In 1999 he was a lecturer at Harvard; he gave the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford in 2001, and the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge in 2010. Since 2002 he has been a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. His recent publications include a book about human rights law and the philosophy of human rights, a history of Western ideas about the Ottoman Empire, and an account of Ali Pasha’s diplomacy during the Napoleonic Wars. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and at Cambridge an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse, Trinity, and Gonville and Caius. He was knighted in 2014 for services to scholarship, journalism, and European history.    

Manveen Rana

Senior investigative journalist and host of The Times and Sunday Times flagship podcast Stories of Our Times

Senior investigative journalist and host of The Times and Sunday Times flagship podcast Stories of Our Times. She was previously a broadcaster and reporter for BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme and The World at One.