The British Museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, has suggested that a “cultural exchange” arrangement could be achieved with Greece over the Parthenon Marbles.
It marks a change in tone for the museum, who have long taken a hardline stance when pressured to send the works back to Greece. The museum has housed the Marbles since 1817, and has for years argued that a 1963 act of parliament prevents deaccessioning the ancient objects.
Williams’ new stance, laid out in an interview with the Sunday Times, may be a result of similar comments made by George Osborne – former Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Chairman of the British Museum. Although Osborne’s role is as a trustee, he said there was a “deal to be done” over sharing the Parthenon Marbles with Greece.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Williams said: “What we are calling for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece. I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found.”
Crucially, the British Museum says in a statement: “We will loan the sculptures, as we do many other objects, to those who wish to display them to other public around the world, provided they will look after them and return them.”
“The sculptures are an absolutely integral part of the British Museum,” Williams continued. “They have been here over 200 years.”
He added, however, that, “We want to change the temperature of the debate. We need to find a way forward around cultural exchange of a level, intensity and dynamism which has not been conceived hitherto. There are many wonderful things we’d be delighted to borrow and lend. It is what we do.”
A spokesperson for the Parthenon Project campaign group says: “We need a forward-looking, mutually beneficial agreement, in the form of a cultural partnership between Greece and Britain. This would see the Parthenon Sculptures permanently return to their rightful home in Athens and other wonderful Greek objects displayed in Britain for the first time, making sure this exchange works for both sides.”
Despite this seeming an improvement in relations, quite what the deal would actually mean remains to be seen. Greece has long expressed desire for ownership, and Williams dismissed the idea that 3D replicas could offer a solution. “People come to the British Museum to see the real thing, don’t they?” he said.