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A New Greek Revolution for the Parthenon Sculptures

Parthenon Sculptures
Detail of the west metope of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Credit: Thermos / CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikimedia Commons

By Elly Symons and George Vardas, Co-Vice Presidents of the Australian Parthenon Committee AND Co-Founders of the Acropolis Research Group

Recent comments by British PM Boris Johnson and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden continue to highlight the British side’s intransigence on the issue of the Parthenon sculptures.

This stonewalling continues to frustrate Hellenes and Philhellenes the world over.

The British argument on the Parthenon Sculptures

For many years the British position resorted to various straw-man arguments, the most obvious one being that there was ‘nowhere to display them’. This argument was of course rendered otiose with the opening of the sublime Acropolis Museum which beautifully displays the extant half of the sculptures. In London, the other half remain isolated and decontextualized in the gloomy confines of the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery.

When that argument was rendered moot, the British invoked the ‘Floodgates’ argument that if the sculptures were returned all the museums of the world would be emptied. This hyperbole has also been countered by Greece by confirming that it does not seek return of other items and, conversely, would actually offer reciprocal long term loans on a rotational basis of rare Greek artefacts to be displayed in the British Museum.

Next came the ‘Universal Museum’ confection. The previous British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, invented the notion of the ‘encyclopaedic museum’ to justify retention of illegally and dubiously acquired objects in the museum’s collection by arguing that displaying objects in parallel with treasures from other cultures somehow enhanced an understanding and appreciation of those objects. This is 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 when looking at a particular work of art stolen from different countries, cultures and historical periods, rather than appreciating it alone with other works from its own country within a context which makes it collectively and historically meaningful”.

The Parthenon Frieze displayed in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery has been deprived of both its original context and its original meaning.

The Sculptures Belong to Greece

Only in the Parthenon Gallery on the top floor of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, can the Parthenon frieze, metopes and pediment sculptures be properly understood and appreciated in the historical and culturally specific context in which they were conceived.

One fascinating comparison is the pediment salvaged from the Hekatompedon, the precursor Temple of Athens on the Acropolis. These curious sculptures offer an immediate understanding of the magnificence of the Parthenon Sculptures created only a century and half later. The difference between the two collections is remarkable – and meaningful. The visitor understands immediately that what took place in 5th Century BC Classical Athens was a miracle of enlightenment, artistic endeavour and masterful craftsmanship. It was indeed the leap of humanity which founded Western Civilisation.

This simply cannot be recreated in the British Museum which Roberston dismissively describes as a ‘smorgasbord of tidbits from around the world’.

Although the case of the Parthenon Sculptures remains the number one agenda item at each meeting of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on Cultural Heritage, it remains unresolved as the British side has shown an unwillingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Following the 2013 request by UNESCO to the British side offering to mediate between Greece and Britain, the British ‘declined’ to participate in a mediation or indeed in any form of meaningful negotiation.

Where does this leave Greece?

‘Cultural Diplomacy’ is the catch cry of many activists in this space. However, since Melina Mercouri began this modern dialogue, the ‘strategy’ of diplomatic and cultural ‘soft power’ has gotten nowhere because of the British side’s ongoing intransigence.

Moreover, since the above arguments have all been effectively countered by Greece, the British reprised the claim that the Marbles were legally acquired and remain the lawful property of the British Museum by reason of an Act of Parliament.

However, this claim to legal ownership is unsupported by the available evidence.

Extensive research undertaken in the meticulously kept Ottoman Archive has yielded significant evidence of the transactions and movement of Lord Elgin during the period in question. Several firmans have been unearthed regarding Elgin’s presence in Athens and his wider travels in Greece. However, and significantly, the very firman which Elgin claims legitimises his removal of the Sculptures, does NOT exist.

That, we argue, is because it NEVER EXISTED.

The so-called translation in Italian, a language common to none of the treating parties who predominantly spoke English, Greek or Turkish, is in all likelihood a draft of a request prepared on behalf of Elgin and limited specifically to the making of drawings and casts of the sculptures and the collection of broken fragments on the ground. That is all. There was no blanket permission to ransack and pillage the monument.

There are also the letters of Elgin and his agents, the Reverend Philip Hunt and Giovanni Battista Lusieri, which provide evidence of the bribery of local Ottoman authorities.

The proceedings before the UK House of Commons in 1816 to consider the acquisition of the Elgin collection also reveal that Elgin’s motives and actions were strongly opposed by many members, including the Committee’s leading lawyer, MP Sergeant Best, who concluded that “these Sculptures were brought to this country in breach of good faith.

The Issue of Legitimacy

In recent times, the Greek Government has acknowledged that the purported legality of Elgin’s actions, and the subsequent purchase and transfer of the sculptures to the British Museum, upon which the British now base their case for retention, should now be challenged.

A nuanced and effective strategy for this campaign must now prevail, rather than relying on making eternally polite but ineffectual requests for the Sculptures’ return. Many consider it is time to take a stand to challenge the only remaining piece to the puzzle: the flawed British claim to legal ownership of the Marbles.

Since Elgin acquired the sculptures illegally, according to Lord Mansfield, the father of British Commercial Law, who declared that any transaction facilitated by bribery was null, void and illegal, the UK Government has been in effect the ‘receiver of stolen goods’ and was therefore not in a position to give good title by 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 deaccession of any objects in its collection, while the UK Government conveniently declares that the question of return is a matter for the British Museum Trustees and that there are no plans to amend the Act. Under the right circumstances, however, in which the Trustees and Parliament understand that it is in the best long-term interests of the Museum 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 to accommodate the return of artworks looted by the Nazis.

Progress from that point then rests on political will and good faith negotiations to achieve an acceptable and enlightened outcome that will benefit both countries, both museums and indeed world culture.

The time has come to adopt the spirit and tenacity of the 1821 Revolutionaries and Philhellene allies to break this historical impasse and to correct one of history’s great wrongs.

Parthenon Sculptures
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni (left) and Elly Symons. Credit: Elly Symons

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 President of the Australian Parthenon Committee, met with the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, to discuss the Parthenon Sculptures campaign.


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