The recent re-opening of the Acropolis archaeological site has seen renewed calls by the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum.
Greece has also unveiled a new campaign “All of Greece, One Culture” to entice visitors back to the country to enjoy contemporary culture in historic heritage sites.
According to Dr Mendoni, the sculptures currently languishing in Bloomsbury are stolen goods and the Greek State will never recognise the purported legal ownership of the so-called Elgin Marbles by the British Museum. The Culture Minster added that it is time for the British Museum to reconsider its position on the occasion of the forthcoming 11th anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum, asking rhetorically:
“Does it want to be a museum that meets and will meet modern requirements and the soul of the people? Or will it remain a colonial museum that is meant to hold and imprison treasures of world cultural heritage that do not belong to it?”
This is a legitimate question.
The problem is that the same arguments were mounted when the Acropolis Museum first opened in 2009 and again on its tenth anniversary in 2019. The conservative British cultural establishment, led by the British Museum and supported by successive UK governments, remains tone deaf to requests for repatriation of the sculptures as it has for decades.
David Hill, the former Chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, has put it bluntly:
“To date there is absolutely no sign that the British Museum will engage in any meaningful bilateral negotiations, or agree to any mediation. Indeed, despite the widespread international campaign, we are no closer now to seeing the sculptures returned than we were at the time of Melina Mercouri.”
It is simply not enough to keep renewing requests for return or enlisting public opinion for the cause over social media when there is no sign of movement in the halls of Westminster. Nor will claims that the British Museum owes a “moral duty” to repatriate the marbles translate to an actionable claim or an enforceable right without more.
The Greek Government therefore needs to thoroughly review its strategy beyond repeated passionate entreaties for the sculptures’ return.
When is the last time that a Greek Prime Minister raised the issue of return with his UK counterpart, not as a passing gesture, but stressing that the Parthenon Sculptures are an important aspect of cultural policy in the overall context of Anglo-Hellenic bilateral relations? When did a Greek Culture Minister last visit the British Museum and engage with its director in the full gaze of the media (recalling Melina Mercouri’s famous encounter with David Wilson in the mid-1980s)?
But even these steps would be unlikely to sway the British out of their entrenched colonial mindset.
One option that has been described as the least problematic is for the International Court of Justice to be approached by a UN agency to provide an advisory opinion in respect of the return of cultural property pursuant to the principles, both established and emerging, of customary international law. This option forms part of the comprehensive legal advice delivered by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Amal Clooney and the late Professor Norman Palmer to the Greek Government back in 2015.
As the authors of the legal advice argue, such an opinion could be sought by UNESCO, pursuant to its duty to preserve the world’s heritage, or even by the General Assembly of the United Nations itself which has on a number of occasions passed resolutions for the return or restitution of cultural property.
The basis for such a request is the growing recognition of the sovereign right of nations to possess and enjoy the keys to their ancient history by way of recovering from foreign museums or private collections important or integral national cultural symbols. In the case of Greece, the Parthenon Sculptures are inextricably connected with the Parthenon and the surviving sculptures and temple ornaments and are arguably one of the most important keys to a proper understanding of the genius and the Classical spirit that came together to produce these incomparable works. They also underscore the need to preserve the artistic integrity of the Parthenon monument.
Such a strategy would enable Greece, which takes part in regular meetings of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee into cultural property and has also been prominent in passing resolutions at the UN for the return of looted cultural property, to engage in real and effective cultural diplomacy in co-opting other member states to make public submissions to the Court. In that way, the shallow excuses and obfuscation of the British Museum would finally be exposed.
It is sincerely hoped that Greece finally takes decisive action to break this long-standing cultural impasse.
For that reason alone, the new cultural campaign launched by the Greeks could just as easily be called “One Parthenon, All the Sculptures”.
George Vardas is the Vice-Chair of Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures.