George Osborne hopes the British Museum can “reach an agreement with Greece” that would see the Elgin Marbles temporarily returned in exchange for ancient artefacts that have never been seen in the UK.
The chairman of the British Museum trustees, 52, said “we may well not succeed, but we think it’s worth trying” during his speech at the annual trustees’ dinner in the Duveen Gallery – home of the Parthenon sculptures.
Greece has been campaigning for decades for the return of the artefacts, which once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.
The country has long claimed they were illegally acquired during a period of foreign occupation, while British officials have rebuffed repeated demands for their return.
“I hope we can reach an agreement with Greece,” former chancellor Mr Osborne said during his speech.
“An agreement that enables these great sculptures to be seen in Athens, as well as London.
“An agreement that allows other treasures from Greece, some that have never left those shores, to be seen here at the British Museum.
“As trustees we look for a partnership with our Greek friends that requires no one to relinquish their claims, asks for no changes to laws which are not ours to write, but which finds a practical, pragmatic and rational way forward.”
Mr Osborne said the sculptures have always been “controversial”.
“We should not shy from that controversy,” he said. “I think too often we’ve thought let’s keep quiet, if we don’t talk about things that are difficult, then no one else will.”
Mr Osborne said the museum welcomed controversy when announcing “many precious objects have been stolen from our stores, over probably several decades, and most likely by someone who worked here and we trusted”.
“We can’t pretend it didn’t happen, or it doesn’t matter, or that some years ago we weren’t warned,” he said.
“It was our duty to look after these objects and we failed in that duty.
“That’s why we made news of the thefts public. It’s why we commissioned a far-reaching, independent review into what went wrong and how to fix it.
“It’s why we will publish its conclusions in the coming months and it’s why I’ve apologised for what has happened.”
The high-profile theft drew renewed attention to the disputed Elgin Marbles, with some questioning their safety in the institution.
The annual trustees’ dinner also announced that British artist Tracey Emin will be the first female Royal Academician to join the museum’s board of trustees.
Emin said: “It’s one of my favourite museums in the entire world.
“I love everything Egyptian. I’m very proud to be a trustee and I hope my presence will be a positive contribution.”