The prized and controversial Elgin Marbles—ancient sculptures taken from Athens by an English Earl in the early 19th century under dubious legal authority and subsequently purchased by the government to stay permanently at the British Museum—would be returned to their Mediterranean home under a Jeremy Corbyn premiership, the Labour leader told Greek paper Ta Nea. The position represents a reversal of Labour policy under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who personally interceded to stymiey the return of the marbles to Greece during his tenure in 10 Downing Street. Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, Labour leaders before Blair, both advocated repatriating the marbles.
“As with everything stolen or removed from a country that was in the possession or colony—including objects looted from other countries in the past—we should also begin constructive talks with the Greek government on the return of the sculptures,” Ta Nea quoted Corbyn as saying.
The marbles were chiseled off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin between 1799 and 1810 with permission from the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece. An act of the British Parliament purchased them for the collection of the British Museum in 1816. Twenty one years later, Greece, which had recently gained independence, began a still-continuing but so-far unsuccessful campaign to have them returned, a case that has been bolstered by the construction of a new Parthenon museum not far from the Acropolis.
The British Museum has argued that it is the legal owner of the marbles, and that only an act of parliament could allow the institution to return them to Greece. Some have also argued the marbles are safer in the U.K. institution than the resource-strapped Greece, but an article in The Guardian from 1999 reminds us that might not exactly be the case. It recounts a pre-millennium controversy:
They were at the centre of controversy last month after it emerged that the museum had damaged the marbles during a bungled restoration in 1938. The museum's stewardship was also criticised recently when it was disclosed that corporate clients and individuals were allowed to host theme parties in the marbles room.