© Jez Coulson / Insight

The case for returning the Elgin Marbles

The Parthenon Project's Sarah Baxter describes how to bypass British laws and reunite the sculptures
April 5, 2023

When journalist Sarah Baxter wrote in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles in 2018, she had no idea how much traction it would get. “It made front-page news in Greece,” she tells me. “Deputy editor of the Sunday Times says to return the sculptures.”

Baxter, 63, left the Sunday Times in 2020 and now lives in New York, where she is professor of foreign reporting and director of the Marie Colvin Center at Stony Brook University. Over Zoom, she tells me how she inherited her interest in the Marbles from her father, who had a retirement job as secretary of Friends of the British Library, then based at the British Museum. “He loved the sculptures and so did I.” 

Although she thought they were “beautifully laid out”, Greek acquaintances would tell her the marbles looked “so dingy and hidden away” in the British Museum. After Baxter was invited to address a symposium in Athens, she realised how right they were. At the Acropolis Museum she was struck by the large windows overlooking the Parthenon. 

That museum now contains around 30 per cent of what are often collectively called the Parthenon Sculptures. Most of the rest are kept at the British Museum, after the Earl of Elgin controversially removed them from the Parthenon in the early 19th century. “Some of them are literally divided in half,” Baxter tells me. “You get the head or the torso of a warrior in the British Museum and the arm or some other limb in Athens. It just seemed that this was obviously one great artwork that deserved to be shown together in its entirety.”

The British public is warming to the idea of returning the Marbles to their home. In 2020, Baxter wrote about the Marbles again and one Sunday Times readers’ poll received 11,000 responses, with 78 per cent in favour of giving them back. “I think a lot of British people, once they actually think about the fairness of the case, think, ‘well, yes, they do belong together in Greece,’” Baxter says. “But very often people don’t even give it five minutes’ thought. If they give it five minutes’ thought, they can see the logic of reuniting.” 

Recently, museums have been looking to return stolen or unfairly procured artefacts. The University of Cambridge and London’s Horniman Museum are repatriating their Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British soldiers in 1897, to Nigeria; the University of Aberdeen already returned its bronzes in 2021. Last December, Pope Francis said he would send back three fragments of sculptures from the Parthenon that have been displayed in the Vatican for 200 years.

Greece would like the British Museum to do the same. But it won’t be easy: one chief obstacle to reuniting the sculptures permanently is the 1963 British Museum Act, which forbids museum trustees selling off its objects except in very limited circumstances. There are some signs that a loan could be arranged, even if Rishi Sunak has made discouraging noises. This year, George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, has said the UK and Greece are working on a deal that would see the Marbles displayed in both London and Athens. “He would love to go down as the guy who pulled off a diplomatic triumph,” says Baxter.

As for Baxter, her own campaign goes on. Last year, with comedian Stephen Fry and several former and current MPs, she joined the Parthenon Project, a lobbying group founded by Greek businessman John Lefas. “The Parthenon Project is saying, ‘Let’s not get hung up on the question of ownership,’” Baxter says. “You have to agree to disagree on certain things and find new ways forward. There’s a lot of goodwill on both sides.” The Parthenon Project suggests that, in return for the Marbles, Greece could lend other artefacts to the British Museum on rotating displays. 

Baxter agrees there is a risk of opening up another battleground in the culture war. “But I think we’re more rational than that,” she says. “The fiercest British Brexiteer would not want to see Stonehenge in Athens.”