George Osborne: British Museum will not ‘shrink in the face of the culture wars'

Visitors to the British Museum view the Elgin Marbles collection which has been at the centre of an ongoing controversy – George Rose/Getty Images

The British Museum will not “shrink in the face of the culture wars,” George Osborne has said.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who took over as chair of the museum in October, made the comments amid ongoing controversy over the repatriation of artefacts stored in the British Museum.

Last month, Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, demanded the museum return the 2,500-year-old Elgin Marbles “stolen” by the British between 1801 and 1805.

Boris Johnson, in a follow-up meeting with Mr Mitsotakis, said that – while he recognises the “strength of feeling” in Greece – he would not explicitly back the artefacts’ return.

“The Prime Minister reiterated the UK's longstanding position that this matter is one for the trustees of the British Museum,” his spokesman said at the time.

‘Recognising Britain’s contribution’

Writing in The Times on Friday, Mr Osborne said the museum was “open” to “lending their artefacts to anywhere who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return”.

On the topic of the British Empire, Mr Osborne added that one risks being called a “nationalistic bigot” for “recognising Britain’s contribution to the spread of democratic ideas and the defeat of fascism”.

He wrote: “We're leading the work in Benin City to excavate its past and build a museum space to display its beautiful bronzes.

“But nor are we embarrassed or defensive. Almost three centuries on, we remain one of the very few places on earth where you can see the great civilisations of the world side by side.

A section of marble frieze sculpture (438-432 BC) from the Parthenon in Athens, part of the collection that is popularly referred to as the Elgin Marbles – AFP via Getty Images

“Today, there is no shortage of forces trying to divide us from each other, separate us into silos and ensure the conversation is easy because we never meet anyone different who disagrees with us.

“Museums of culture should not shrink in the face of the culture wars.”

The British Museum's permanent collection of eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, including priceless artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone, mainly amassed at the height of the British Empire.

The museum has faced repeated calls for the return of the Benin Bronzes, seized by British forces in 1897 during a “bloody and devastating” plunder of the city in modern-day Nigeria.

While the exact death toll of Benin citizens has never been confirmed, reports suggest casualties ran into the hundreds if not thousands.

In June this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would return part of its Benin Bronzes collection to Nigeria.

The University of Aberdeen also announced that it had handed back a sculpture from the plundered collection.

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