Charge foreign British Museum visitors and share Elgin Marbles, former boss says

A former boss of the British Museum has called for the disputed Elgin Marbles to be shared with Greece and said foreign visitors should be charged entry to the London attraction.

Sir Mark Jones led the institution as the interim director following the furore over thefts from its collection in 2023.

He told the Sunday Times that “some of the buildings are in a poor state” and sometimes during heavy rain there are leaks in galleries.

Sir Mark Jones standing in profile outside the entrance to the British Museum in London
Sir Mark Jones outside the British Museum (Aaron Chown/PA)

Sir Mark also said: “The way we are going to benefit from, rather than falling out, over the different claims to different objects is by creating partnerships around them, instead of creating conflicts around them.

“That’s expensive. At the moment, that work is entirely funded by private philanthropy, but in the long run, it would make more sense to use some of the funding that would come in from charging overseas visitors to create a better-funded system of global partnerships.

“If we were ever to find a way to create a partnership with the Greeks over the Parthenon Marbles, we would need to find a way to fund it.”

The marble statues came from friezes on the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple and have been displayed at the museum for more than 200 years since they were removed by Lord Elgin when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.

Some of the temple statues are on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens and Greece has long called for the collections to be reunited.

Greece alleges the marbles were illegally acquired during a period of foreign occupation – which the UK Government and British Museum rejects.

Stone carvings of figures that make up the Parthenon Marbles collection
The Parthenon Marbles in London’s British Museum (Matthew Fearn/PA)

Sir Mark, who was also a former head of the Victoria And Albert Museum, said British people contribute in the form of taxes so should not have to pay to visit the British Museum.

However, he said the “money has to come from somewhere”, adding: “Either a major part of the funding has to be found out of taxation, which is difficult as the public finances are very stressed, or we need reasonably to charge (tourists).

“Why is it more equitable that all of the money should come from British taxpayers, when actually the benefit is enjoyed equally by overseas visitors?”

Sir Mark took over from Hartwig Fischer, who resigned as director in August after it was disclosed that 1,500 objects were missing or stolen from the museum’s collection.

In March, Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery since 2015, was announced as the permanent director of the museum.