In a statement released Friday, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports expressed gratitude for the pope’s “generous” decision and hoped it would put pressure on the British Museum, which holds dozens of pieces from the Parthenon, including the controversial “Elgin Marbles.” ” to return to Eschewing the hot-button issues of restoration and repatriation, Pope Francis framed the return as a “donation” for Greek Archbishop Ironimos II and his “pledge to walk the global path of truth,” the Associated Press reported. A tangible sign of sincere desire”.
Talk of the Parthenon pieces has swirled in recent weeks after a Greek newspaper report said the British Museum was in secret talks with the Greek government about returning the Elgin Marbles.
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During the 1687 Venetian siege of the Acropolis, many of the Parthenon’s friezes and decorative elements were destroyed. In the early 19th century, British diplomat Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin, shipped more than half of what was left back to Britain. (Elgin infamously wrote that such patterns would look good in his home.)
Today, most of the surviving marbles are in the British Museum or the Acropolis Museum, while a handful remain elsewhere.
The British Museum denied claims that it would return the specimen. It said in a statement that while it was open to “partnership” with Greece, “we will not destroy our great collection because it tells the unique story of our shared humanity.” The museum has for decades criticized efforts to return the marbles, citing policies against it.
What makes a collection “great” and who gets to hear that “unique story” are hotly debated in museums these days. For some institutions—such as the Smithsonian, which recently updated its collections policy—the moral imperative to return some objects outweighs other concerns. The Pope’s decision to return Greek artifacts is one of many similar actions around the world.
Recently, several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, returned Nigerian artifacts known as Benin bronzes, stolen by the British in a deadly 1897 raid. Last year, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, once seen in the Bible Museum and believed to have been looted from an Iraqi museum, was returned.
This is not the first time that Vatican museums have returned objects from their collections. In October, museums returned three ancient mummies to Peru, and in 2008, they returned a Parthenon marble to Greece on a one-year loan. This may not be the last either. When the Pope visited Canada this summer, indigenous groups in the country requested the return of several items. Housed in the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum of the Vatican.
For now, however, the pope’s decision appears to be focused on restoring relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. Pope Francis last met with Archbishop Ieronymos II during a visit to Greece in December 2021, during which he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in fueling the split with the Greek Orthodox Church. The tension was high on this trip. A Greek Orthodox priest was caught on video shouting “Pope, you’re a heretic” at the Catholic leader, reflecting the historic mistrust between the churches.
Among the artifacts the Pope plans to return to Greece are a marble head of a boy, a horse’s head and a bearded man’s head. The Parthenon Gallery at the Acropolis Museum in Athens was built to house the marbles, but it is not yet clear where they will go once they are in place. Back in Greece. His return date has not been announced yet.