The return of the Parthenon Marbles
This update provides a summary of the significant developments in Britain, Greece and other countries over the past two years to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece
"The request for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is not made by the Greek Government in the name of the Greek nation or of Greek history. It is made in the name of cultural heritage of the world and the voice of the mutilated monument itself that cries out for the marbles to be returned."
Minister for Culture (2001)
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Prepared by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles
For further information please contact
Eleni Cubitt – phone : 44 207 226 6686 or firstname.lastname@example.org
David Hill – phone : 61 2 9399 9902 or email@example.com
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The Parthenon Marbles are the statues, sculptures frieze and other marble panels that were an integral part of the magnificent Parthenon, which was built on the Athenian Acropolis in the Fifth Century BC.
The buildings on the Acropolis are widely accepted as antiquity's most perfect and important legacy to the world. The manner in which the grandness and simplicity of architectural form is combined with sculpture and decorative elements, to portray aspects of legend and life of the classic Greek age, has no peer. Overall the ensemble of buildings which still dominate contemporary Athens symbolises the time when Greek culture was at its zenith, and it was this culture that laid the foundations of much of western civilisation -its art, architecture, science, medicine, theatre and the idea of democracy.
Early in 1801, the British Ambassador to Constantinople, lord Elgin, began stripping more thon 100 sculptures and significant fragments from the Parthenon for shipment back to Britain. Originally intended for his private collection, Elgin was forced under financial pressure to sell the Marbles to the British Government, who in 1816 gave them to the British Museum.
There were protests in Greece and in Britain at the time the sculptures were taken -and calls for their return have continued ever since.
Supported by people in Britain and around the world, Greece has been calling for the reuniting of the 'Elgin collection' in the British Museum with the other Parthenon Marbles that remained in Athens. Not only ore different parts of the Parthenon Marbles divided between the museums of Athens and London but so too are some of the pieces of the same statues.
Despite having given an undertaking that it is prepared to discuss the issue, the British Museum has refused to enter talks with Greece about the possible return of the Marbles.
For its part, the British Government has not yet been prepared to change the policy of retention, or to intervene to facilitate the return of the Marbles. This is despite publicly stated commitments from earlier leaders of the Labour Party that a Labour Government would return them to Athens.
The past two years has seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls from around the world for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Greece.
TURKEY. In February 2000, the Turkish Government called for the return of the Marbles, with the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ismail Cem, saying; "We consider it an obligation. for Turkey to assist in the effort for the return of the Marbles, since their destruction and seizure by Elgin took place with Turkish approval during the Ottoman occupation of Greece".
USA. In March 2002 Congressman D. Payne tabled a resolution (HC357) in the United States Congress calling on the British Government to "facilitate the return of the Parthenon Marbles in time for the 2004 Olympic Games". In May 2000, Senator Hillary Clinton publicly appealed for the Marbles to be returned, as did President Bill Clinton when visiting the Parthenon in November 1999.
AUSTRALIA. The Australian Prime Minister John Howard publicly declared his Governments support for return in January 2002 and subsequently raised the matter with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Australia. This followed a submission by 44 Australian MP'S to the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport in March 2000 and calls by two former Prime Ministers, the Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser and the Hon E.G Whitlam for the Marbles to be returned.
NEW ZEALAND. The New Zealand Government publicly called for the return of the Marbles in 2001 and Prime Minister Helen Clarke raised the matter with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London in early 2002.
CHINA. In April 2000, while on an official visit to Greece the President of the Peoples Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, publicly expressed the view that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens.
RUSSIA. In December 2001, the Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the return of the Marbles saying that "various conquerors had attempted to remove and appropriate parts of the Parthenon" which was "one of the most outstanding monuments of humanity".
BELGIUM. In early 2002, Belgium Senators François Roelands du Vivier and Paul Wille launched an international campaign calling on Britain to return the Marbles in time for the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.
IRAN. In March 2002, the Iranian President Mohamed Khatami said in Athens "We totally agree that Greece’s demand should be carried out by Britain. It’s a legitimate demand; if would be a sign of understanding between the two peoples". Khatami also offered Iranian assistance to Greece in the building of the new Acropolis Museum.
CANADA. In March 2002 the Quebec National Assembly became the first North American legislature to formally express support for the return of the Parthenon Marbles when it unanimously approved a resolution calling for the Marbles to be returned in time for the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.
SERBIA, BOSNIA, CROATIA, BULGARIA, SLOVENIA, TURKEY. In February 2002, a declaration by Southeastern European Culture Ministers called for a return of the Parthenon Marbles in time for the Athens Olympic Gomes of 2004.
FYROM. In April 2002, the Prime Minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ljubco Georgievski expressed his government's support for Greek efforts to have the Parthenon Marbles returned to Athens.
UNESCO. At a meeting in Phnom Penh in March 2001, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for promoting the Return of Cultural Property to the Countries of Origin, urged bilateral talks between Britain and Greece to discuss the return of the Marbles.
The British Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles has updated its database, which shows between 1984 and 2002 a total of 192 current House of Commons MP's have signed motions or surveys supporting the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
The signatories include,
149 Labour MP's
25 Liberal Democrats
11 members of other parties
Included in the signatories are
10 current or former Ministers or Cabinet Ministers (John Prescott, Jack Straw, Robin Cook, Paul Boateng, Chris Smith, George Foulkes, Alan Whitehead, Keith Bradley, Harriet Harman. Steven Twigg)
6 Government Whips or Assistant Whips (Nick Ainger, John Heppell, Gerry Sutcliffe, Jim Fitzpatrick, Fraser Kemp, Angela Smith)
14 Parliamentary Private Secretaries (Elizabeth Blackman, Bob Blizzard, Ion Cawsey, Lorna Fitzsimons, Andrew George, Mike Hall, Paul Hope, Stephen Ladyman, Andrew Love, Lara Moffat, Ken Purchase, lan Stewart, Gareth Thomas, David Watts)
12 are Privy Councillors (Paul Boateng, Keith Bradley, Robin Cook, Terry Davis, Derek Foster, John Gummer, Harriet Harman, Charles Kennedy, John Prescott, Chris Smith, Gavin Strang. Jack Straw).
Another measure of support amongst MP's was published in The Economist magazine (March 2000).
66% of all MP’s surveyed said they would vote for the Marbles to be returned to Athens and 34% were opposed.
Of those surveyed
84% of Labour MP's supported return and 16% were opposed
83% of Liberal Democrat MP's supported return and 17% were opposed
13% of Conservative MP's supported return and 87% were opposed
There have been a number of public surveys or polls in recent years. All indicate very high levels of support for the return of the Marbles.
A 1998 MORI Poll revealed public support at a ratio of almost 8:3 for the return of the Marbles
In 1999, a BBC on line survey also registered the same public ratio of support : 8:3
In 1996, TV presenter William G. Stewart hosted a Channel 4 debate on the issue of the Parthenon Marbles. The program was followed by a telephone poll, which attracted nearly 100.000 calls, and over 90% supporting return.
Greece has started the construction of a new Acropolis Museum on the southeastern side of the Acropolis and it is planned to be completed by 2004, the year Athens hosts the next Olympic Games.
The museum designed by architects Bernard Tschumi and Michalis Fotiadis was decided following an international competition and is to cost an estimated 29 million pounds. It is on elegant non-monumental building, which seeks to make great use of natural light that will allow a focus on the sculptures exhibited inside.
The main reason for building the new museum is to allow all of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, which are currently split between Athens and London to be reunited. The sculptures will be seen on the top level of the museum in direct line of sight with the Parthenon itself.
The museum will also allow for all of the surviving component parts of the magnificent 160 metre Parthenon frieze, to be presented in context and in exactly their original geometric configuration. This is not possible in the British Museum, where the limited size of the Duveen gallery means the panels of the frieze face inwards, rather than out, with sections from the north, east and south frieze facing east and other sections from the south and north facing west.
Greece has attempted to make the return of the Parthenon Marbles easier by telling Britain that it is prepared to put to one side its historic claim to ownership, or title to the Marbles.
Both the Greek Minister for Culture Evangelos Venizelos, and the Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Papandreou have indicated to Britain that the unresolved dispute about who rightfully owns the Marbles could be avoided while dealing with the return of the collection.
The gesture allows the British Museum to continue to exercise all the rights of ownership of the collection, if they are reunited with the other surviving marbles in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. It would also allow on-going British Museum involvement in the management, exhibition and scholarship of the Marbles should they be returned to Athens.
The British Museum said it was prepared to discuss the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles with Greece but has since refused requests for talks.
The Chairman of the Trustees, of the British Museum Graham Greene, told a House of Commons Select Committee (June 2000) that the Museum was 'very willing to engage in a discussion' about the Marbles.
In April 2002, the Director of the British Museum, Dr Robert Anderson again said 'No' to talks about the return of the Marbles when asked by his counterpart at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.
In February 2002, Eddie O'Hara MP introduced a Private Members Bill into the House of Commons, which would allow the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens.
Eddie O'Hara, the Labour Member for Knowsley South, has been Parliament's leading campaigner for the return of the Parthenon Marbles for many years.
The purpose of the Bill is to grant to the Trustees of the British Museum the power to return items in their collection, such as the Parthenon Marbles. The current British Museum Act limits the powers of Trustees to dispose of the museum's objects.
In presenting the Bill, Eddie O'Hara told the House, 'The Marbles belong neither to the British Museum nor the British Government, nor even the Greek Government...the Marbles belong to the whole of humanity'.
The House of Commons voted to grant leave for the Bill to be presented to the Parliament. Its further progress could be protracted unless the Government supports it.
Between November 2001 and February 2002 MP Eddie O'Hara tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling on the British Government to enter discussions with Greece about returning the Marbles for the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. The motion attracted 110 MP's signatures.
[An Early Day Motion is an opportunity for Members of Parliament to demonstrate support for an issue by inviting other Members of Parliament to add their signatures to a motion]
Early Day Motions typically attract an average of about 20-30 signatures. Very few attract 100 signatures. The various Early Day Motions initiated by Eddie 0’Hara since 1996 and calling for the return of the Parthenon Marbles have now attracted more than 200 MP's signatures.
In July 2000, the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport reported on its inquiry into Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade. As part of the inquiry, the committee visited Athens and the Parthenon and took submissions and oral evidence on the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
The committee received a number of written submissions calling for the return of the Parthenon Marbles; from the Greek Government, the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles but also from Australia, USA and New Zealand. It also received o submission from the British Museum, which opposes the return of the Marbles.
Despite examining the case, the committee did not make any finding on the claim for the Marbles to be returned to Athens, restricting itself to summarising the arguments for retention and the arguments for return.
The committee did however, in its final report, note the commitment made by the UK Arts Minister Alan Howarth that the British Government 'was happy to discuss the issue of the marbles and that 'progress' was dependant on a closer meeting of minds, a closer mutual understanding of each others point of view'.
The British Museum itself has suggested the possibility of the Parthenon Marbles being returned as part of a long-term exchange-loan with Greece.
In a written submission to the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport, (mid 2000), the British Museum stated :
'The museum in the past explored the possibility of a reciprocal exchange of objects as renewable long term loans to a1leviate such restitution claims as the Parthenon Sculptures' (section 5.2).
Giving oral evidence to the committee about the Parthenon Marbles (June 2000), the Director of the British Museum Dr Robert Anderson added :
'We could possibly examine the possibility of exchange-loans. This has been brought up by the museum before. Where two countries have two halves of individual objects, there is the possibility for a long term loan between them. That does seem to be possible'.
The idea of a loan-exchange would allow the Marbles to be returned without requiring amendments to the British Museum Act. The British Museum Act limits powers to the Trustees to 'dispose' of objects in its collection but specifically allows (Section 4) for the Museum to make loans.
Also, the British Museum's guidelines on loans states 'There is no reserved list of objects that can never be lent' which indicates there is scope for the Parthenon Marbles to be part of a long term renewable exchange-loan.
Greece has responded by indicating it is prepared to enter a 1ong-term loan-exchange agreement and to make available suitable material for exchange with the British Museum -including objects from Greece’s extensive collection of classic period masterpieces.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport concluded (July 2000) that British Museums were not facing a flood of claims for the return of items of cultural property.
In its inquiry into Cultural Property: Return and illicit Trade, the committee was told in evidence by the British Museum that to return the Parthenon Marbles would set a precedent and could encourage claims from 'throughout the world' for other cultural material to be returned.
However, when asked to provide additional information the British Museum admitted to the inquiry that over the past 30 years the museum was aware of 27 requests, some formal, some informal, from overseas governments, museums or cultural leaders, for items to be returned.
In any event, in its submission to the Committee, the Greek Government stressed the Parthenon and its statues were a special and unique case.
Also, the Museums Association, which represents many museums and museum staff in the UK advised the Committee : "Evidence from Australia, Canada and the USA suggests that only a small proportion of museum collections ore likely to be subject to repatriation requests".
In its final report, the committee dismissed the argument that a dangerous precedent was being set by the claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles when it concluded : "we see few signs that the museums are being engulfed in a tidal wave of claims designed to empty the gallery and display cases of British museums".
The British Museum is increasingly out of step with modern museum practice by refusing to consider there may be special cases for the return of cultural property.
Many museums "around the world have for some years been recognising special claims and returning items from their collections.
Last year Berlin’s Pergamon Museum offered to return a number of important architectural pieces from the Philippian temple at Olympia and to assist with the rebuilding of the temple.
Also in January 2000 the UK Government's Museum and Galleries Commission (now called 'Resource') published 'Restitution and Repatriation : Guidelines for Good Practice'.
The guidelines urged British museums to establish policies and procedures to deal with claims for repatriation of material in their collections, to act 'pro-actively' and to seek 'constructive outcomes'.
In considering particular requests for material to be returned, the guidelines suggested factors that museums should take into account when considering claims. These included recognising cultural significance and spiritual significance of cultural heritage and 'wrongful past takings'.
Also in 2001, UK Museums Association, which represents many of Britain’s museums and museum staff, conducted a survey of its members, which revealed that over 90% supported the principle of museums repatriating material in special cases.
At the Institute of Art and Law conference in London in December 2001, to discuss Caring and Sharing : Moral and Legal Imperatives for the return of Cultural Property, a number of eminent speakers called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
In the Keynote address to the international conference, former Australian Prime Minister and classicist, the Hon Gough Whitlam strongly urged the British to return the Parthenon Marbles to the new Acropolis Museum, which is being built in Athens.
The conference heard from experts from UNESCO, the UK Museums Association, Korea, USA and Nigeria. Significantly, most of the speakers supported the return of cultural property in special cases and no speaker at the conference opposed the principle of restitution.
In mid 2000, UK TV presenter Bill Stewart conducted a survey at the British Museum that showed the number of visitors to the Parthenon Marbles in the Museum's Duveen Gallery to be no more, and probably less, than the number of visitors to the Acropolis in Athens.
The British Museum has regularly claimed the Museum’s 5-6 million visitors can enjoy the Parthenon Marbles each year – and this is more than would see the Acropolis in Athens. The Stewart survey however, confirms that only a smart proportion of visitors to the British Museum venture into the Duveen Gallery.
The Art Newspaper has revealed (March 2002) that the British Museum has disposed of a number of Benin Bronzes as recently as 1972 despite the requirements of the British Museum Act (1963), which limits the power of the museum to dispose of its collections.
Under the Act, the trustees may only dispose of objects, which are duplicates of others objects, or unfit for retention, or consist of printed matter created after 1850.
However, a number of Benin Bronzes from Nigeria were sold by the British Museum from 1950 till 1972 at prices as low as 75 pounds per piece. The bronzes were originally taken from Nigeria during a British punitive expedition against the Benin ruler in 1897.
The last sale of about 30 pieces was part of an exchange of items with New York banker and art dealer Robert Lehman in 1972. The late legal justification for the sale was that they were "duplicates" – even though they were not of a similar design to other pieces but may have contained a similar symbol, eg a leopard.
The reve1ation is embarrassing for the British Museum, which has relied on the legal restriction on returning objects as the basis for rejecting claims for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.
In late November and early December 1999, the British Museum held an international symposium to discuss the damage inflicted on the Parthenon Marbles whilst in their care.
In 1937 and 1938, British Museum Trustee and international Art dealer, Lord Duveen had the marbles scraped clean with wire brushes and bleach in attempt to make them whiter. Many of the Marbles were severely damaged as a result.
The symposium was announced in Parliament by the Secretary of State Chris Smith, which followed renewed claims by historian William St Clair that the Marbles were damaged and the British Museum had attempted to cover it up.
While arguing the damage inflicted had been exaggerated, Ian Jenkins of the British Museum admitted to the seminar "The way Duveen went about cleaning the sculptures was a scandal; the way the museum tried and failed to cover it up was a scandal" .
Also, British Museum papers recently released include a report of a 1938 internal inquiry into the incident that recorded 'The damage which has been caused is obvious and cannot be exaggerated' .The Director of Museum at the time also reported 'some important pieces have been greatly damaged'.
The severe damage inflicted on the Marbles has damaged the Museum’s curatorial reputation and put to rest its arguments that the Marbles have been better cared for than had they stayed in Athens.
There are now a number of organisations around the world campaigning for a return of the Parthenon Marbles.
The peak body is the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, which was established in 1983. The Secretary of the Committee is Eleni Cubitt, who with limited resources has coordinated both the UK campaign and the international campaign for many years. The Chairman is Professor Anthony Snodgrass, an eminent archaeologist from Cambridge. He recently assumed the chairmanship following the retirement of Graham Binns, who has a long and distinguished record with the Committee. The Deputy Chairman of the British Committee is the well-known former MP Chris price and its Executive Director is David Hill.
Working with the British committee are similar organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. The Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles has a number of prominent political leaders as members, including two former Prime Ministers, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam.
Information about the international campaign is available on the British Committee web site www.parthenonuk.com
Also prominent is the Melina Mercouri Foundation, which was established for the promotion and promulgation of Greek culture. Inspired by the great Melina Mercouri, the Foundation has set as its primary goal the construction of the new Acropolis Museum, which will house the reunited Parthenon Marbles. The Chairman of the Foundation is the film director, Jules Dassin. Web site www.culture.gr/4
In early 2002, a new campaign called 'Parthenon 2004' was launched in London with the support of many eminent citizens including Fiona Shaw, Janet Suzman and Vanessa Redgrave. Parthenon 2004, which is urging the British Government to commit to the return of the Parthenon Marbles in time for the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, works closely with and is supported by the British Committee for the restitution oh the Parthenon Marbles.
For more information on Parthenon 2004, their web site is www.parthenon2004.com
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