New Study Advises British Government and British Museum not to Restitute Parthenon Marbles

Feature Article Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Readers know that the British Government and the British Museum are very reluctant to discuss issues of restitution and have, in the past as well as in recent years, shown less enthusiasm for the return of looted artifacts which they view as the dismantling of the British Empire. The Parthenon Marbles, which have been a cause of disagreement between Britain and Greece for the last decades are considered key to Britain's position in this matter. A recent study has recommended that Britain should not return the Marbles and should not make an apology to those who believe that Britain has wrongly taken their artifacts.

In his study, The Elgin Marbles Keep, Lend or Return, An Analysis, Sir Noel Malcolm has argued for the status quo. (1)

Malcolm is a supporter of the idea of the universal or encyclopedic museum and quotes James Cuno favourably:

'As cosmopolitan institutions, presenting representative examples of the world's artistic legacy, they promote tolerance and understanding of difference;

Encourage identification with others, a shared sense of history, and the recognition that a common future is at stake; and stand as evidence against the political proposition that cultures can be essentialized and 'national,' fixed manifestations that pit one state-based identity – one people – against another. (2)

What Malcolm, of course, does not tell his readers is that this recently invented concept was subject to massive attacks in 2002 when it appeared in the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums so that soon its supporters were beginning to abandon it when American museums and other institutions, signatories to the Declaration, were forced by Italy to return looted artifacts. The Declaration was not serving its primary purpose of discouraging and preventing restitution claims. Some writers asked whether the Declaration served any purpose after Italy detained a senior American curator. (3)

Malcolm is sympathetic to the floodgates' argument:

'To return major artworks with this kind of backstory would be to open the gates of repatriation significantly wider than they have been set before. The Marbles are perhaps the most important group of objects in the British Museum. And it is a simple fact that they constitute the most famous disputed case of this kind in the world; they feature prominently, often primarily, in every standard discussion about the return of cultural objects. If any single conceivable act of repatriation can set a major precedent to which all future claimants will automatically appeal, it is this one. (4)

The floodgates theory is the most illegitimate and unconvincing argument regarding restitution. Yet, it is used by many of the defenders of the museums holding looted objects of other nations or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. The argument states that we cannot return one treasure because we have many other stolen items.

If we return one, all the other owners will ask for the return of their looted objects we hold. If we return the Parthenon Marbles, the Nigerians will also ask for the Benin Bronzes and vice-versa. Should holders of looted objects not keep quiet about the other looted objects? It is similar to a situation where a judge orders a thief to return a stolen Mercedes Benz, and he replies : If I return the Mercedes Benz, I will have to return a Volvo, Volkswagen, and all the other stolen vehicles in my garage. The thief is building up a defence based on his previous crimes.

Western museum directors and their defenders shamelessly use the evidence of crimes of their ancestors as badges of honour. Behind most of the illegal acquisitions of the museums are violent and bloody acquisitions through war and plunder. One needs only to recall the invasion of Asante(Gold Coast, now Ghana) by Britain in 1874 and the seizure of gold objects in Kumase that are currently in possession of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection.

Most readers will remember the punitive expedition of Benin in 1897 by British troops who stole thousands of bronzes, of which the British Museum is holding nine hundred pieces and refuses to discuss their restitution. Other countries like Germany have started, after delaying tactics, to restitute the Benin bronzes. (5)

Apparently, in some circles, severe violent crimes of the colonial masters are considered minor misdemeanours of which no one needs to be ashamed.

It is true though that most of the victims of colonial violence and wild adventures were dark-skinned non-European peoples and therefore not high on the scale of humanity established by the European Enlightenment led by Kant, Hegel, Hume and others.

Malcolm refers to Neil MacGregor as a firm opponent of lending by the British Museum. Malcolm does not refer to the recent book of the former director of the British Museum who urges the museums to be flexible and adaptive to modern times. Neil MacGregor argues that the world has changed, and museums must also change their structures and narratives. À monde nouveau, nouveaux musées.(6) The Times, referring to Neil MacGregor's new attitude, concluded that Britain and the British Museum should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. The Times published on 11 January 2023 an opinion entitled The case for returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens has become compelling.

'The treatment of the Parthenon in the past centuries has long been used as a reason to deny Greece the sculptures' return.

The Elgin Marbles are sublime in their depiction of the human form and the impression of movement.

Millions have marvelled at these sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon and for the past two centuries have reposed in the British Museum, among the most beautiful of all its holdings.

For more than 50years, artists and politicians have argued that artefacts so fundamental to a nation's cultural identity should return to Greece. The muse and the British Government, supported by The Times have resisted the pressure. But times and circumstances change. The sculptures belong in Athens. They should now return.' (7)

The Guardian shares the opinion of The Times. (8)

Sir Noel Malcolm concludes his study as follows:

'Is the whole issue of the Elgin Marbles an insoluble problem? Yes and no. Yes, because none of the 'solutions' discussed above is justifiable. No, because the 'problem' is not in fact a problem; or, to put it more precisely, it will seem a problem only to those who adopt a set of arguments and claims, promoted by the Greek side and it's no doubt altruistic supporters, which do not amount to a justified case. Not all of those arguments are worthless; some weight has been given to some of them above. But what is not justified is the idea that, overall, they can outweigh the reasons for leaving the Elgin Marbles where history placed them long ago – in the British Museum in London. This does not mean that a small number of the sculptures cannot be sent, exceptionally, for temporary exhibition at some other institution, either in the UK or in another country. What the present situation does mean, unfortunately, is that the one country whose desire to exhibit them raises a truly insoluble problem is Greece, precisely because of the claims it makes.'

Malcolm holds Greece responsible for the current situation, forgetting that the British Museum has never seriously considered the Greek request for restitution or loan. Most Western countries respond sympathetically to demands for restitution, but the British Museum and the British Government seem more interested in displaying arrogance and imperialistic reflexes. They make Greece, deprived of the Parthenon Marbles, the guilty party.

Noel Malcolm believes we should leave artefacts where history has placed them, i.e., where the British Empire has placed them: in the British Museum in London.

Neil Malcolm does not advance any new arguments but rehearses the old arguments for and against the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

Malcolm's recommendations resemble a call to arms to the right wing to fight all the 'advances' that have been made so far in this long-standing debate between Britain and Greece:

1. 'There should be no change to the British Museum Act of 1963. The provisions offer a proportionate framework for the governance of British Museum and the protection of its collection.

2. The government should state its explicit support for the Trustees in maintaining the British Museum's collection, and in particular, retaining the Elgin Marbles in an institution where they will be seen by the greatest number of people, for free

3. The British Museum should not make any loan or other transfer of any of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, unless the following four conditions are met:

  • a. The Greek government must formally and publicly acknowledge the British Museum's ownership of the marbles, via the submission to UNESCO of a formal recognition of the British Museum's ownership.
  • b. The loan should be for a fixed time period, comparable with the typical length of other loans of famous items from the collection which are highly sought after by visitors to the British Museum.
  • c. The Trustees should be certain that there is no risk of the Marbles being detained in Greece by popular or judicial action. d. The Trustees should publish any legal advice the British Museum receives on whether such a loan would be compatible with the British Museum Act and their duties as Trustees.

4. The British Museum's loan policy document should be updated. In particular, section two should be amended to state that no item will be loaned to an exhibition, museum or other institution which a) does not formally recognise that the British Museum is the legitimate owner of that item, or b) is located in a country whose government does not formally recognise that the British Museum is the legitimate owner of that item.

Sir Malcolm negates all the suggestions that the British Museum Act of 1963 should be modified to enable the museum to make restitutions whenever necessary. If any loan is made to Greece, 'The Greek government must formally and publicly acknowledge the British Museum's ownership of the marbles, via the submission to UNESCO of a formal recognition of the British Museum's ownership.'

Such a recommendation nullifies all the suggestions made in recent discussions between the British Museum and Greek officials regarding loans of the Parthenon Marbles.

Sir Malcolm believes the Greeks would not return the Parthenon Marbles in London if loaned to Greece. Such an insult is remarkable in relations between the holder of the contested artefact and the original owners. We should be ready for more insults from certain British writers regarding restitution. Malcolm does not feel any need to apologize: "The Elgin Marbles are the Crown Jewels of the British Museum – a national museum with a universal mission. We should feel proud of our ability to show them to the world in London. There is nothing to apologise for here. (9) Should one at least not feel sorry for those deprived of their artefacts for decades?

Noel Malcolm's statements show that certain persons in Britain do not readily accept that the world has changed, and that Britain and its institutions must also change. They ignore changes in positions regarding restitution in the Western world. They are not impressed by the fact that the Vatican returned its fragments of the Parthenon to Greece. (10) They still believe Britain must be the centre of the world and control the destiny of others. They do not accept that other people, such as the Greeks, would like to tell their history with their artistic objects, such as the Parthenon Marbles.

“The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.’ Geoffrey Robertson. (11)


This study was published by the Right-wing think tank Policy Exchange.

2. Malcolm, p.46; J. Cuno, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Chicago, 2011), p. 8.

3. See our comments on James Cuno and the universal or encyclopaedic museum in K. Opoku, Declaration On The Importance And Value Of Universal Museums: Singular Failure Of An Arrogant Imperialist Project

K. Opoku, Affirmations and Declarations: Review of James Cuno’s Museums Matter

K. Opoku, Whose “universal Museum”? Comments On James Cuno’s Whose Culture?

See also Alexandra Rowson, The Universal Museum - a neocolonial device,

4. Malcom, op. cit. p.45.
5. K. Opoku, The Benin Bronzes, Restitution and Decolonization The Debate on Colonial Loot and Reparation.

K. Opoku, Germany Transfers Legal Rights in Benin Artefacts to Nigeria

6. Éditions Hazan, Paris, 2021.
7. Orthodox Times, The Times: The case for returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens has become compelling

The Times’ landmark shift on the Marbles

8. Charlotte Higgins, The Parthenon marbles belong in Greece – so why is restitution so hard to swallow?


9. Elgin Marbles: Leading historian says British Museum has “nothing to apologise for”


Vatican returns Parthenon sculptures to Greece

The Art Newspaper, Vatican returns Parthenon sculptures to Greece in ‘historic event’

to the Acropolis
Vatican returns Parthenon Sculpture fragments

11. Geoffrey Robertson, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for the Returning Plundered Treasure , Biteback Publishing, London, 2019.


Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, Athens, Greece, which the British Museum, London

,in 2014 sent on loan to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. British museum had more confidence in Russia than in Greece to which it refuses to loan Parthenon Marbles.

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024