With the spirit of the Greek Revolution of 1821 in our hearts and minds, Elly Symons, Co-Founder of the Acropolis Research Group and Vice-Chairman of the Australian Parthenon Committee, met Greek Minister of Culture Dr Lina Mendoni, to discuss the Parthenon Sculpture Campaign.
Recent comments by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden continue to underscore the intransigence of the British side. This stone wall continues to frustrate Hellenes and Philhellenes around the world.
For many years the British position resorted to a variety of straw man arguments, the most obvious being that there was “nowhere to put them”. This argument has of course been rendered otiose with the opening of the sublime Acropolis Museum, which magnificently presents half of the existing sculptures. In London, the other half remains isolated and decontextualized in the dismal confines of the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum.
When this argument was made moot, the British used the “Floodgates” argument that if the sculptures were returned, all the museums in the world would be emptied. This hyperbole was also countered by Greece by confirming that it is not seeking the return of other items and, conversely, would in fact offer long-term reciprocal loans on a rotating basis of rare Greek items for display. at the British Museum.
Then came the making of the “Universal Museum”. The former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, coined the notion of an “ encyclopedic museum ” to justify the retention of illegally and questionably acquired objects in the museum’s collection by arguing that the display of objects in parallel with treasures from other cultures has somehow improved the understanding and appreciation of these objects. It is a revisionist justification. As Geoffrey Robertson notes in his acclaimed book “Who Owns History?”, “They fail to explain why a cosmopolitan visitor has a better experience looking at a particular piece of art stolen from different countries, cultures and historical periods, rather than to appreciate it. alone with other works from his own country in a context that gives him a collective and historical meaning ”.
The Parthenon frieze on display at the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery has been deprived of both its original context and its original meaning.
It is only in the Parthenon Gallery, on the top floor of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, that the frieze, metopes and sculptures of the Parthenon pediment can be properly understood and appreciated in the specific historical and cultural context in which they were designed.
A fascinating comparison is the pediment recovered from the Hekatompedon, Athens’ forerunner temple on the Acropolis. These curious sculptures offer an immediate understanding of the magnificence of the Parthenon sculptures created only a century and a half later. The difference between the two collections is remarkable – and significant. The visitor immediately understands that what happened in classical Athens in the 5th century BC was a miracle of enlightenment, artistic effort and masterful craftsmanship. It is indeed the leap of humanity that founded Western civilization.
It just can’t be recreated at the British Museum, which Roberston scornfully describes as an “assortment of goodies from around the world.”
Although the case of the Parthenon sculptures remains the number one item on the agenda of every meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Cultural Heritage, it remains open as the UK side has shown reluctance to engage. in a constructive dialogue.
Following UNESCO’s 2013 request to the British side to offer to mediate between Greece and Britain, the British “refused” to participate in mediation or even any form of meaningful negotiation.
Where does that leave Greece?
“Cultural diplomacy” is the slogan of many activists in this space. However, since Melina Mercouri started this modern dialogue, the “strategy” of diplomatic and cultural “soft power” has come to naught due to the permanent intransigence of the British side.
Further, since the above arguments were all effectively countered by Greece, the British took up the claim that the marbles had been legally acquired and remained the legal property of the British Museum due to a law of the Parliament.
However, this claim of legal ownership is not supported by the available evidence.
Extensive research into the meticulously preserved Ottoman archives has provided significant evidence of Lord Elgin’s transactions and movements during the period in question. Several firmans have been discovered regarding Elgin’s presence in Athens and his wider voyages to Greece. Significantly, however, the very firman that Elgin said legitimized his removal from the sculptures, made do not to exist.
This, we argue, is because it Never existed.
The so-called translation into Italian, a language common to none of the dealing parties which spoke mainly English, Greek or Turkish, is in all likelihood a draft request prepared on Elgin’s behalf and limited specifically to carrying out drawings and casts. sculptures and the collection of broken fragments on the ground. That’s all. There was no general permission to sack and pillage the monument.
There are also the letters from Elgin and his agents, the Rev. Philip Hunt and Giovanni Battista Lusieri, which provide evidence of the corruption of the local Ottoman authorities.
Proceedings in the UK House of Commons in 1816 to consider acquiring the Elgin Collection also reveal that Elgin’s motives and actions were hotly contested by many members, including lead counsel for the Committee. , Deputy Sergeant Best, who concluded that “these sculptures have been made. to this country in violation of good faith.
In recent times, the Greek government has recognized that the alleged legality of Elgin’s actions, as well as the subsequent purchase and transfer of the sculptures to the British Museum, on which the British now base their case for conservation, must now be be challenged.
A nuanced and effective strategy for this campaign must now prevail, rather than relying on eternally polite but ineffective demands for the return of the Sculptures. Many consider it time to take a stand to challenge the only remaining piece of the puzzle: the British ‘mistaken claim of legal ownership of the Marbles.
Since Elgin acquired the sculptures illegally, according to Lord Mansfield, the father of British Commercial Law, who said that any transaction facilitated by corruption was null, void and illegal, the British government was in fact the “ recipient of stolen goods ” and was therefore unable to give a proper title in transferring the sculptures to the British Museum by an Act of Parliament.
Nevertheless, the British Museum is content to hide behind the provisions of the British Museum Act which effectively prevents the disaccession of any object from its collection, while the British government opportunely declares that the question of return falls within the purview of the administrators of the British Museum and that there are no plans to change the law. Under the right circumstances, however, in which the Trustees and Parliament understand that it is in the Museum’s long-term best interest to amend the Act and return these particular sculptures – as part of a generous win-win strategy. , the Act could certainly be amended, as it was intended to allow the return of works of art looted by the Nazis.
Progress from this point then relies on political will and good faith negotiations to achieve an acceptable and informed outcome that will benefit both countries, both museums and global culture.
The time has come to embrace the spirit and tenacity of the revolutionary and Philhellenian allies of 1821 to break this historic impasse and correct one of the great wrongs of history.
Elly Symons and George Vardas are co-vice-chairs of the Australian Parthenon Committee and co-founders of the Acropolis research group.