The return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece was the topic of a panel discussion at Federation Square last Thursday, giving new momentum to the public debate about ownership of cultural artefacts.
The discussion was part of the Light in Winter festival and provided an excellent opportunity to hear an inspiring and passionate presentation from David Hill, president of the International Association of the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, for the repatriation of the sculptures to retell the story of 5th century BC Athens.
Konstantin Dimopoulos, whose Black Parthenon installation graced the Square the past weeks, Mike Green, head of the Indigenous collection of the Melbourne Museum and Lyndon Norman Packer, Melbourne Museum, were also part of the discussion panel.
The forum was moderated by Robyn Archer, director of The Light in Winter.
The speakers spoke intelligently and persuasively about ownership and possession of the past and what it means to own cultural artefacts.
Mr Hill recounted his first visit to the Parthenon in 1973 and then to London where he saw the missing parts of the temple of Athena and recognised the injustice in having the sculptures away from their home. He has been passionate about their reunification ever since.
Nowadays he is the chairman of an association with groups of volunteers in 16 countries that pressure the British government to return the marbles to their rightful place.
“Most people don’t know but half of the marbles have never left Athens” he said and pointed out that only when the sculptures return to Athens would the masterpiece be complete and allowed to continue the narrative that started centuries ago.
Mr Hill wasn’t shy in describing Elgin’s actions to have the sculptures cut in half as “a great tragedy”.
He said that what happened was “an obscenity, it’s worst than a bad idea” and later he stressed that the return of the Parthenon Marbles is “not about Greek nationalism, it’s about the benefit of all humanity” which was the view supported by Mr Dimopoulos in his presentation.
Mr Hill was very effective in dismantling all arguments about keeping the marbles in London, such as preservation and accessibility and highlighted the lack of political will from within Britain despite the fact that public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the return of the marbles to Athens – and that is world opinion not only British.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, ran an online poll a few days ago which showed that 95% of respondents believe that it is time for the marbles to return to Greece.
He criticised the British museum, a publicly owned organisation, for implementing a policy of retention that “is so out of step” with public sentiment and expressed his optimism about “correcting one of history’s wrongs”.
He alluded to legal action being an option if the British cannot be swayed to return the marbles although he stressed that this decision rests with the Greek government.
He also pointed out in no uncertain terms that Greece has made every possible concession in its efforts to get the marbles back to Athens.
The return of the Parthenon Marbles is a contentious one for Britain as it touches on the fear of opening the floodgates for the return of many more cultural artefacts to their places of origin, according to Mr Hill.
The return of Aboriginal human remains is an aspect in the whole debate of ownership and possession of artefacts that Lyndon Norman Packer talked about in his presentation.
He spoke about his efforts to document the Aboriginal human remains in British institutions and “their wall of silence about their contentious collection”.
During the forum it was stressed that there issues concerning the return of human remains are different to the ones concerning the return of stones but it does not imply that one bears more significance than the other.
Mr Packer believes that public support and pressure from various groups on the relevant institutions and also on governments is pivotal in changing attitudes.
British institutions have returned a number of indigenous remains to Australia after the successful intense lobbying and media attention to the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains to Australia.
The last one was the high-profile return of the remains from 17 Tasmanian Aborigines that were held in the British Natural History Museum.