The British government has said that it will not abide by a recent UNESCO decision on the Parthenon Marbles.
It also insisted that “the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally” and rejected UNESCO’s call to reconsider its position and to negotiate with Greece on the return of the 2,500-year-old cultural treasures.
Speaking to Greek newspaper Ta Nea, a government spokesperson said that the UK government “disagrees” with the decision, adding that it intends to challenge it before UNESCO.
The response came after the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) voted unanimously for the first time at its 22nd session to include the return of the Parthenon Marbles in its decision document, marking a major step forward since Greece first introduced the request to the meeting’s agenda in 1984.
ICPRCP’s decision says that Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures is “legitimate and rightful” and calls on Britain “to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece on the matter”.
Most importantly, the Committee acknowledges for the first time that “the case has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely on the UK Government “.
This is in stark contrast to the UK government’s assertion that it is for the British Museum, not the government, to discuss the issue and make decisions related to it.
“We disagree with the Committee’s decision adopted in the closing minutes of the session and are raising issues relating to fact and procedure with UNESCO,” a UK government spokesperson told Ta Nea.
“Our position is clear—the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference. All decisions relating to collections are taken by the Museum’s trustees,”
the spokesperson added.
A British Museum spokesperson told Ta Nea that “the Trustees of the British Museum have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care,” adding that “the Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of (the Museum’s collection) story and a vital element in this interconnected world collection”.
Greece insists that it is the rightful owner of the Parthenon Marbles. The Greek government says that the sculptures were illegally removed from the Parthenon during the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the early 1800s.
In his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson dashed Greece’s hopes of getting the Marbles back, telling Greek daily Ta Nea that they were “legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s Trustees since their acquisition.”
Britain had previously rejected Greece’s request to hold talks on returning the Marbles after Athens proposed a meeting between experts from the two countries.
“We are all very glad about the outcome of the UNESCO meeting in Paris last week, where the Parthenon Sculptures were an item on the Agenda, and this now for nearly 40 years, ever since Melina Mercouri raised the issue in 1984. We congratulate Greece for its efforts to achieve this outcome and do hope that the UK will finally reconsider its stand and enter in a dialogue with Greece”, Dr Christiane Tytgat, President of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), told Ta Nea.
“The Trustees and the British Museum cannot eternally ignore the growing pressure to return the Parthenon Sculptures, nor can they close their eyes for a growing consciousness when it comes to the legitimated acquisition of artefacts. The day will come when we see the Parthenon Sculptures reunited in the Acropolis Museum. At least, there they can be seen, shining through the glass wall of the Parthenon room, even if the Museum is closed, day and night, 7 days a week, at the foot of the Acropolis, in visual contact with the Parthenon,” Dr Tytgat added.
The British Museums’ comment to Ta Nea in full:
“The British Museum has a long history of collaboration with UNESCO and admires and supports its work. The Trustees of the British Museum have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care and to make them accessible to world audiences. The Trustees want to strengthen existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures directly between institutions, not on a government-to-government basis. This is why we believe that working in partnership across the world represents the best way forward. Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy.
“The Museum takes its commitment to be a world museum seriously. The collection is a unique resource to explore the richness, diversity and complexity of all human history, our shared humanity. The strength of the collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect – whether through trade, migration, conquest, conflict, or peaceful exchange.
“The Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of that story and a vital element in this interconnected world collection, particularly in the way in which they convey the influences between Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman cultures. We share this collection with the widest possible public, lending objects all over the world and making images and information on over four million objects from the collection available online.
“The approach of the Acropolis Museum and the British Museum are complementary: the Acropolis Museum provides an in-depth view of the ancient history of its city, the British Museum offers a sense of the wider cultural context and sustained interaction with the neighbouring civilisations of Egypt and the Near East which contributed to the unique achievements of ancient Greece”.
* Yannis Andritsopoulos is the London Correspondent for Greece’s daily newspaper Ta Nea