There has been significant controversy over the last week concerning a proposal by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis seeking the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the Louvre and from the British Museum for the bicentennial of the commencement of the Greek War of Independence in March 2021.
Mr Mitsotakis has proposed that the Marbles be returned or loaned for a period of time and that, in return, he would be willing to allow Ancient Greek treasures that have never been shown abroad before to be exhibited both in the Louvre and the British Museum.
The controversy stems from the proposal for a short-term ‘loan’ or return. Those concerned about the proposal argue that by seeking a loan of the Sculptures the Prime Minister is, in effect, admitting or conceding that the British Museum or the Louvre have ownership of the Sculptures. Others argue that the only way the sculptures should be returned is on a permanent basis.
I totally understand both arguments and in principle agree with both.
To add to the controversy, Yannis Andritsopoulos, the London correspondent for Ta Nea, reported that a British Museum representative has told him that “the Greek government must acknowledge the British Museum’s ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures before its Trustees consider whether or not to lend the Sculptures to Greece.”
I do not agree to any concession by the Greek Government as to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures. In my view however, a concession does not need to be made as to their ownership, to have the Sculptures return for the 2021 celebrations. This would depend on the ‘fine print’ of any agreement reached between the respective countries for the loan of the antiquities. For example, if the agreement is made for the short-term return of the Parthenon Sculptures without any acknowledgment as to ownership of the Sculptures and on the basis that the demand for the permanent return of the Sculptures will continue, then there is no concession as to the artifacts’ ownership. Terms and Conditions can be agreed to protecting the Sculptures that are to be exchanged between the two countries. This would be a matter of cultural diplomacy between Greece and Britain. On that basis, the Sculptures can return in 2021 without any concession as to ownership having been made.
I do not disagree with the second argument either. The Sculptures were illegally removed and taken by Elgin and are being illegally kept in the British Museum and therefore should be returned to Greece unconditionally. On further consideration, however, there may be a number of advantages and benefits to be gained by seeking to have some or all of the Parthenon Sculptures returned for a short term period for the 2021 celebrations whilst the permanent return demands continue. Those advantages as I see them are as follows:
1. It allows some of the Sculptures to be returned to Athens for the first time in over 200 years;
2. The Sculptures can finally be reunited and be seen in their original context or in situ at the Acropolis Museum overlooking the Acropolis;
3. It will focus worldwide attention on the issue as the world will be able to see the Sculptures reunited at the Acropolis Museum during a period of time where World attention will be focused on Greece for the 2021 celebrations;
4. In addition to world attention it will also focus attention of the Greek people to this issue and help galvanise further support for the return of the sculptures both in Greece and the throughout the world;
5. Having some of the Parthenon Sculptures returned for a period will strengthen the arguments and the campaign for the permanent return of the Parthenon Sculptures in the future. It allows the world to see how the sculptures should be displayed at the same place, reunified in the Acropolis Museum;
6. It will allow both the British Museum and the Louvre to see the advantages of a co-operative approach and the benefits of displaying other Ancient Greek Treasures in their Museums;
7. In the event that the British refuse to send the cultural treasures to Greece, then the focus would be cast on the intransigent and colonial attitude of the British towards the return of the Parthenon Sculptures particularly in light of the loan of the sculpture of the Greek river god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 2014. This may help galvanise further support for the campaign for the permanent reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures;
8. We finally have a Greek government making a more serious proposal for the return of the Sculptures albeit for a short period of time. Successive Greek governments have done very little to seriously demand the return of the Parthenon Sculptures save for proposing mediation (as recommended by UNESCO) which has been completely rejected by the British. A Government that is proactive towards the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures should be supported and encouraged on this issue.
I am an active campaigner and activist for the permanent reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures but can see the benefit of the recent proposal by Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Of course, the devil will be in the detail of any agreement that may be reached for their return.
Jim Mellas is a Barrister at the Victorian Bar and also a commentator, activist and campaigner with a large following on social media. He is currently actively campaigning for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. On 22 June 2018, Jim staged a live protest inside the British Museum which went viral around the world with the video and photographs from this protest having been viewed by millions throughout the world. He is also one of the founding member of the Acropolis Research Group.