The Parthenon Sculptures “belong here in the UK” according to the country’s culture secretary, Michelle Donelan.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's The Media Show Donelan said said she “sympathised” with the arguments for returning them, but ultimately thought it would “open a can of worms”.
“You would end up with so many amazing artefacts under question of whether they should go back to another country,” Donelan argued.
Her statements are the latest chapter in the long-running debate over whether the British Museum in London should return the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece, as per the country’s wishes.
For many Greek people, the marbles are a key part of national sovereignty. Known in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, Greece has been campaigning for the return of their heritage objects since the 80s.
Greece argues that the marbles were stolen by the 7th Earl of Elgin in the early 19th century, but the British Museum has argued that he was permitted to remove the statues by the then-ruling Ottoman Empire.
For a long time, the British Museum has declined to entertain discussions to return the marbles.
Recently, there seemed to be a change of tune from the museum as chairman, George Osborne, was reportedly in talks and close to forming a return deal with Greece.
The talks between Osborne and the Greek government were likely prompted by other international institutions returning their sections of the Parthenon marbles.
In December, Pope Francis ordered the return of all the Parthenon marbles in the Vatican City’s possession.
Like the Parthenon marbles, the Benin Bronzes have also been the focal point of the conversation around colonial lands stealing cultural heritage. Cultural institutions from across Europe, the US and the UK have returned stolen Benin Bronze statues to Nigeria in the past few years.
This all makes the comments from the UK’s cultural secretary more surprising.
The culture secretary also referenced that it is currently illegal for the British Museum to permanently return the sculptures to Greece. But recent reports of talks with Osborne have indicated that there may be a long-term loan deal on the cards.
But any such agreement with Osborne was disregarded by Donelan.
“I think his view on this has been misinterpreted and certainly portrayed wrongly,” she said. “He's not about to send them back. Basically, that's not his intention. He has no desire to do that. And there's also been this concept of 100 year loan muted as well, which is certainly not what he's planning either.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis yesterday dismissed the idea that the Parthenon marbles would be returned any time soon.
“I don’t expect immediate results, but I believe that we have already moved very systematically,” Mitsotakis said.
“If the Greek people trust us again, I believe we could achieve this target after the elections.”