This week Greece received an ancient part that once adorned the Parthenon, the country’s most important archaeological site. The return from a museum in Italy is seen as the strongest alert yet for the British Museum, which houses the largest collection of Parthenon sculptures, and which for centuries refused to return the relics to their ancient homeland.
The marble piece will be unveiled at the Acropolis Museum on Monday, and will be displayed in a full-size representation of the Parthenon Frieze.
The return is part of a pioneering loan deal signed between the Acropolis Museum and the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Sicily, where the artifact has been on display since the 19th century.
The Parthenon portion, which depicts the foot of a goddess, will be loaned for four years in exchange for a headless 5th century BC statue of goddess Athena and an amphora from the 8th century BC as part of an extensive cultural exchange agreement. The loan period may be extended for another four years, and the transfer of the part to Greece could become final.
A member of the Sicilian Council for Culture, Alberto Samona, said this is an important cultural exchange that could pave the way for larger international exhibitions organized by the Salinas Museum and the Acropolis Museum.
Experts in Greece say the loan deal adds to mounting pressure on Britain to follow suit with the so-called Elgin Marbles, a massive collection of sculptures collected by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who was a British ambassador in the early 19th century. The Ottoman Empire, which later controlled Greece. Britain bought it from Elgin in 1816 after a parliamentary inquiry into the legality of his ownership.
The dispute represents one of the longest-running cultural feuds in history, with Athens demanding for decades that the British Museum return its marble masterpieces to Greece. The Greeks accused the late British aristocrat of cultural theft.
Last week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis made a new bid to restore the sculptures as the Acropolis Museum installed 10 parts from the Parthenon Frieze stored in the capital’s Archaeological Museum.
He said the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum is a political and ethical issue with international repercussions. The prime minister said the comeback is all about healing the wound that Elgin violently and illegally inflicted.
Mitsotakis raised the issue in talks with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, late last year, offering to lend some of Greece’s historical treasures to the British Museum.
The prime minister’s office has since said the decision rests with the British Museum. She added, however, that the marbles had to remain in Britain, arguing that they were obtained legally and not the subject of a property dispute.