The Elgin Marbles and Brexit: Should the Cultural Meddle in the Political?

No other ancient artifact has been the subject of more intense, decades-long international debate than the Elgin Marbles. Since the 1980s the Greek government has in a spirit of nationalism argued for the repatriation of these classical masterpieces from the British Museum in London. But an old debate now gains a new dimension: Brexit.

The marbles, built for the Athenian Parthenon in 5th century BCE, have resided in the British Museum since the early 19th century, when Ottoman authorities granted permission to Lord Elgin for the removal of about half of the surviving marbles. That portion is currently in the ownership of the Trustees of the British Museum. Much of the debate on their repatriation has remained unchanged since the 80s. The Greeks argue that the marbles, as relics of their national cultural heritage, rightfully belong to them. The British Museum, on the other hand, contends that the marbles transcend national boundaries as part of a global cultural heritage.

Certain activists and Greek politicians have recently come to see the UK’s Brexit vote as an opportunity to shake up this debate. Since all 27 remaining states in the European Union can veto the exit deal, Greece could attempt to muscle into the final accord the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles. By refusing to comply with the political and economic terms of the agreement until the United Kingdom should agree to the repatriation, Greece could hold the U.K hostage for the marbles.

Though the general issue of the Elgin marbles is multidimensional, the employment of Brexit in it is misguided. This strategy wrongly conflates the political with the cultural; it hinges the consequences of a democratic political decision on a dispute over art, and it holds the British people responsible for a question that they never voted to answer.

Geoffrey Robertson, a proponent of a Brexit deal with the Elgin marbles, writes in the Guardian that articles 3 and 167 of the Treaty of the European Union legitimize the use of the marbles in the negotiation; article 3 “ensures that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.” Stelios Koulogou, a member of the European Parliament and an investigative journalist, furthers this argument by the assertion that, “The Parthenon Marbles are considered as the greatest symbol of European culture. Therefore, reuniting the marbles would be both a sign of respect and civilized relationship between Great Britain and the EU, and much more [than] a legal necessity.”

Though the general issue of the Elgin marbles is multidimensional, the employment of Brexit in it is misguided. This strategy wrongly conflates the political with the cultural; it hinges the consequences of a democratic political decision on a dispute over art, and it holds the British people responsible for a question that they never voted to answer.

The problem is that the legal arguments for the return of the Elgin marbles are void. For years they hinged on some alleged historical uncertainty in Lord Elgin’s purchase from the Ottoman authorities. Many, however, including the British government, hold that the marbles were acquired in accordance with the law of the time. But the legality of the purchase, whatever it was, is anyway now irrelevant. In 2016 non-governmental campaigners brought the first ever legal suit on the issue to the European Court of Human Rights. The court dismissed it on the basis that the acquisition happened “too long ago,” well before any human rights agreement. The Greek Government itself, moreover, in 2015 ceased its attempt at a legal claim to the sculptures, and has officially committed to handle the issue by diplomacy alone.

The point is that there is no legal claim to the marbles; all arguments must therefore be cultural rather than legal. Yet the invocation of the articles of the Treaty of the European Union is a legal argument, for it employs law to justify the return of the marbles. Even the European Commission itself does not interpret those articles as pertaining to the controversy over the Elgin marble.

The British people, furthermore, in voting for Brexit, voted on their own political and economic future. They did not vote to sever all ties to the cultural heritage of the West. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union does not in any way imply that it wants nothing to do with art that originated in Europe. But if the advocates like Koulogou had their way, this cultural dispute, which was entirely irrelevant to the democratic decision of the people at the time of the referendum, would exert undue influence on their political and economic future. Dame Janet Suzman, chairwoman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, aptly put it: “great art was as far from the question posed to the people as anything I can think of. This is entirely another question, a question of aesthetics, honesty, and colonial morality. It would be like putting apples and pears together.”

To leverage so consequential a democratic decision as Brexit, simply to acquire the upper hand in an ongoing dispute over art, borders on unethical. Issues of cultural heritage are important, and are often political. We must nonetheless be careful to distinguish where cultural disputes are politically relevant and ethically justified, and where they are not.




  • Like trying to take away and put back to its place something a 28 year old toddler holds tightly and won’t let go, without even knowing what it actualy holds, and that’s a lenient description. The attitude of the British Museum is a good example of the British kind of thinking and acting. This one more proof of character is a very important reminder and a warning as to what the British stand for. They count centuries, Greece counts millennia and is already projected into future millenia. For the right reasons, mind you. There is no comparison here, they were, are and always will be tourists who likes souvenirs. That’s as far as they can go.

  • Whilst it is good to see students at Brown University interested interested in the case of the Parthenon Sculptures I am afraid that James Flynn’s article is seriously flawed in its purported analysis of the facts and its interpretation of the Brexit argument.

    Firstly, even the British Museum no longer refers to the sculptures as the “Elgin Marbles” which was the original museum name for the collection and which are but fragments of what was originally something else.

    Lord Elgin abused his diplomatic office to bribe local Ottoman officials to allow his men to carve out major segments of the sculptural adornments on the Parthenon. The so-called firman or permission – the original of which was never produced – is strongly in doubt and certainly not free from legal challenge.

    Greece has been seeking the return of the sculptures since it first gained independence, not in the last 30 years as Flynn claims. Nor is the request a mere exercise in nationalism. There are many Greek artefacts in museums all over the world over which the modern State of Greece makes no claim. But it wants to reunite the surviving sculptures that are currently on display in the British Museum with the sculptures in the Acropolis Museum within view of the Parthenon itself and to be studied and appreciated in their proper context. How can one justify the spectre of a marble foot in London with the rest of the sculpture in Athens, or the situation where Poseidon’s torso and shoulders are divided between Attica and Bloomsbury?

    A strong legal opinion has been prepared by a group of eminent lawyers (and is accessible at but the current Greek Government has for the moment stated its preference for cultural diplomatic measures and soft power negotiations without definitely ruling out its legal options. The reference to the action brought in the European Court of Human Rights by a non-State actor, the Athenian Association, is misconceived. The action was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds with no hearing on the merits. No legal precedent was created.

    Flynn then proceeds to conflate the concept of using Brexit for leverage in the European Union’s negotiations with the British with legal proceedings. That is simply wrong. Brexit is all about negotiations and Greece is entitled – if it chooses to do so – to remind its EU partners of the strong cultural heritage underpinnings of the Treaty of Lisbon and to remind them that the Parthenon Sculptures are the embodiment of European culture.

    Of course the British people who voted for Brexit did not vote for the return of the marbles. But then again, they did not vote for the political instability that has ensued at Whitehall or the economic uncertainty that Brexit – whether hard or soft – may well inflict on the British economy.

    Moreover, the commentary attributed to the chair of one of the many international committees lobbying for return hardly ranks as an authoritative voice, particularly as no apparent effort has been made to understand the argument. For a detailed anaylsis and argument for Brexit, the reader is directed to:

    When all is said and done, the debate over the Parthenon Sculptures is and has always been political. Elgin used his political (diplomatic) office to obtain the sculptures; the British Parliament voted to acquire the collection from Elgin in 1816 and an Act of Parliament was enacted to transfer the disputed title to the Elgin collection of Parthenon Sculptures to the British Museum. The British Government has for overtly political reasons refused time and time again to engage the Greeks in any meaningful dialogue, whether at UNESCO or other international forum, repeatedly stating that the sculptures belong to the British Museum and the government has no intention of amending the British Museum Act. In turn, the British Museum, not merely content to spin an outrageous narrative that the sculptures in London now tell a different story and are no longer connected with Athens, says that it is precluded by its Act for deaccessioning items in its collection.

    And it is not simply a dispute about “art”. The British Museum itself has claimed that it oversaw the marbles’ so-called rites of passage and their “transformation” from architectural ornament into museum art object, in attempting to justify the legitimacy of British imperial domination. The Parthenon sculptures, comprising the sculptured pediments, metopes and frieze removed by Elgin and his men, are an integral part of that temple and not just works of art that can arbitrarily dispersed across museums.

    The case for the Parthenon Marbles is a political dispute of global cultural heritage significance. It is not just about culture. Properly understood, the Brexit argument simply means that the remaining member States of the EU – which in 2018 is celebrating the European Year of Cultural Heritage – should be allowed to consider all options when it comes to negotiating a final Brexit agreement with the UK. There is nothing illegal or unethical about that.

  • The main argument appears to be that the referendum was a political vote and therefore cultural issues should not interfere. But the marbles were not given to the UK by a democratic vote, they were taken as a result of a deal between a British looter and the occupying Ottoman empire.
    In any case, the idea that anything is “off limits” in the deals that the post-Brexit UK seeks to obtain is quaint. The Indians will demand their apology, and the diamonds as well. Argentina will want the Maldives. Spain Gibraltar. When the government considers the goodwill that the return of these useless relics can bring, they will perhaps seem an easy price to pay for a faster or be deal. Easy to justify as righting a historic wrong, easier than making concessions on market access, better than spending time and resources working out an alternative.
    Replace the marbles with facsimiles and return them. Make sure they are housed well in Greece and that they remind the visitors that the UK have them willingly.

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