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Sensemaker: Elgin Marbles

Sensemaker: Elgin Marbles

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia said it has “no plans” to attack Ukraine, but warned US officials not to “underestimate the risks” in its confrontation with the West.
  • Schools in Uganda reopened nearly two years after they were closed because of Covid.
  • Surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a 57-year old man with life-threatening disease.

Elgin Marbles

Key number: 100 – people invited to a “bring-your-own-booze” drinks event in the garden of Number 10, Downing Street during the first lockdown. Witnesses say they saw Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Symonds among the 30 people who attended the gathering, although Johnson declined to say whether he attended. The Metropolitan Police is in contact with the government over “widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches” of Covid rules.

Elgin Marbles. The Greek government is working on a new way of getting the Elgin Marbles back home. The Antonino Salinas museum in Palermo lent a marble fragment, which was taken from the Parthenon, to the Acropolis Museum for eight years. In return the Italians will get a 5th-century BC statue of Athena and an 8th-century BC amphora. Greek officials said the loan of the marble fragment it received, which is 2,500-years-old and shows Artemis’s foot in the folds of a gown, could be made permanent and become a “blue print” to pressure the British Museum into returning the Elgin Marbles.

The background. When the 7th Earl of Elgin brought the marble sculptures he had taken from the Parthenon to London, Byron called him a “spoiler,” “robber,” and “violator”. The British government took a different view. In 1816, it bought the marbles from Elgin for the equivalent of around $500,000, or half what Elgin had spent on them, and gave them to the British Museum. 

The Museum now politely calls the marbles the Parthenon Sculptures. It says Greece’s first formal request for their permanent return came in 1983. That went nowhere because Greece maintains the marbles were looted and the museum disagrees. The museum says there have been various meetings and discussions since then, but that there are “no current discussions with the Greek Government on this issue”.

The latest. Discussions are, in fact, ongoing – but with the government rather than the museum. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, met Boris Johnson in November and offered some of his country’s treasures in exchange for the marbles. Johnson said “the UK’s longstanding position that this matter is one for the trustees of the British Museum”.

But it’s the prime minister himself who appoints trustees to the museum’s board, and they are of one mind that the institution has a well-earned right to “retain and explain” even if what’s being retained is loot. Johnson’s latest appointment: Lord Jonathan Marland, former Conservative Party Treasurer. The chair: George Osborne, former Conservative chancellor who supported Johnson’s bid to become prime minister. Little wonder Mitsotakis went straight to Number 10 and that his government is publicising the news of its loan agreement with the Italians.

What’s next? Johnson will keep referring the Greeks to the museum’s trustees, who will stick to the line that the museum won’t even loan the marbles to Greece unless Greece agrees that the museum legally owns them. In short, nothing will happen unless a British government with a radically different attitude towards cooperation is elected.

The Italians’ approach is instructive. The fragment they are sending to Greece was, as it happens, also taken by Lord Elgin. He gave it to Robert Fagan, Britain’s consul in Sicily and Malta. It was sold to the University of Palermo after Fagan’s death in 1816 – the year the British Museum acquired its own marbles – and it’s now on its way to Greece.

covid by numbers

2,500 – the number of “virtual beds” promised by the UK government, in which people can be treated for Covid-19 at home.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Simple energy
SSE Energy Services, a division of Britain’s third-biggest energy supplier, Ovo Energy, emailed its customers with ten “simple and cost-effective ways to keep warm this winter”. The advice, which comes at a time of rapidly rising energy prices, included: “having a cuddle with your pets”, eating “hearty bowls of porridge”, “doing a few star jumps”, and “encouraging blood flow” by eating ginger. Ovo Energy apologised for the email. MPs called it “insulting” and “offensive”. Campaigners have warned that as many as six million homes in the UK may be unable to pay energy bills if prices continue rising into spring.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Aung San Suu Kyi
A court in Myanmar sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup last February, to four years in prison for the illegal possession and import of walkie-talkies and breaking Covid rules. A short sentence and minor breaches of the law, but these were only some of the dozen or so charges against ASSK. If convicted of the more serious charges of corruption, election fraud and breaking the official secrets act, she may spend the rest of her life behind bars. ASSK is now prohibited from holding political office because of her existing criminal convictions, which Human Rights Watch called “bogus”. She is one of more than 10,600 people the junta has arrested since February.

New things technology, science, engineering

Money games
Take-Two Interactive, the gaming company behind Grand Theft Auto, announced it was buying Zynga, the mobile games company that made Farmville, for $12.7 billion in cash and stock. The deal shows how traditional gaming companies are spending big money on mobile where they see more of their future: it prices Zynga’s shares at 64 per cent over their closing price on Friday. The deal also shows how much money there is in gaming: together, the two companies generate $6.1 billion in annual revenues. And they’re not even the biggest in the sector. Take-Two made the acquisition to compete against giants Activision Blizzard and EA, which have also bought mobile assets.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Game, set, vax
Novak Djokovic, an anti-vaxxer and the world’s top male tennis player, won the right to stay in Australia and defend his tennis title at the Australian Open. He had received an exemption from Victoria’s state government to compete even though he hasn’t been vaccinated against Covid, insisting that two prior infections made him exempt. The federal government rejected his visa on arrival on 5 January and he spent the past few days until yesterday preparing, not for the tennis, but for a court case. The judge ruled in his favour yesterday, finding that the government didn’t provide him with a right of reply to its rejection decision. But the federal government’s lawyer told the court that the immigration minister may use his “personal power of cancellation”. He may have cause: this morning, border officials began a new investigation into Djokovic for his failing to disclose a trip to Marbella before arriving in Australia.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cheap environment
England’s Environment Agency told its staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events – such as farm pollution or hazardous dumps by businesses – because it doesn’t have enough money to investigate them, according to a leaked internal report seen by the Guardian. The report said the Environment Agency’s leadership “made it clear to government that you get the environment you pay for”. The agency’s annual expenditure is around £1.6 billion, a fraction of the estimated health and social care costs of pollution.

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Edited and produced by James Wilson

Photographs Getty Images, Zynga

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