2021 marked the 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution.
During the early stages of the Greek War of Independence there was a siege of the Acropolis by the Greek rebels. One of their generals, Makriyannis, told his troops that they were fighting not only for freedom but also to preserve their heritage.
Gesturing towards the Acropolis and the Parthenon Makriyannis declared: “You must not give away these things (…) you must not let them leave the country, it was for them that we fought”.
But rare cultural treasures had already been lost.
Less than twenty years earlier, Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Constantinople, had unlawfully procured the removal of approximately half of the classical statues and marble frieze which adorned the Parthenon and had them shipped to London. The so-called Elgin Marbles entered the British Museum in 1816 where they remain to the present day.
But during 2021 there was also a pronounced shift in mood within the seemingly eternal campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures as the prospect of their own liberation gained some momentum.
Here is a brief overview of the year that was.
The Case for the Marbles
At the World Leaders Forum at Columbia University in December 2020 – just before the new year – the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, reaffirmed Greece’s determination to recover the sculptures “stolen by Lord Elgin”, stating that Greece had a very credible legal and moral case for the marbles to be returned and displayed in the Acropolis Museum for the sake of the unity of the Parthenon, arguably the world’s most important monument and the symbol of Classical Greece.
He was to revisit that issue when he met Boris Johnson in London almost a year later.
But the start of 2021 was, if anything, predictable.
In February the Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, raised the issue with his then UK counterpart, Dominic Raab, referring to the “priceless monuments of our cultural heritage, which are housed in the British Museum” and calling for a framework to be formulated for their return to Greece. Raab did not respond.
In March Boris Johnson, in an interview with a Greek journalist, insisted that the sculptures taken by Elgin would remain in Britain because the UK government “has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum”.
At the same time, the former UK Culture Minister, Oliver Dowden, reacting to the growing museum decolonisation movement in Britain, warned some of the UK’s largest heritage bodies, including the British Museum, to use their collections and assets to provide a “more rounded view” of how British colonialism “uniquely shaped the modern world”. Retain and explain was to be the new conservative mantra.
So when the former British Museum Trustee, and noted British sculptor, Sir Antony Gormley, came out and called for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures the museum’s insipid response was that it was not about to return any “objects” as if the Parthenon Marbles are mere objets d’art scattered around the museum, when in fact they constitute almost half of the known surviving sculptural elements that adorned the Parthenon before they were brutally torn from the fabric of the monument by Lord Elgin’s men and now displayed in the cavernous Duveen Gallery where the sculptures are deprived of their true context and historical meaning.
Who Owns History?
In July 2014 the eminent international lawyer and jurist, Geoffrey Robertson QC, appeared before a resounding crowd in Sydney to launch the Greek edition of his book, “Who Owns History?”
Robertson told the audience that in 2014 he and Amal Clooney held a number of private discussions with the then director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, who made it clear that the British Museum would never lend, let alone return, the sculptures to Greece.
Geoffrey Robertson was also fairly blunt in his assessment. The British Museum will never return the sculptures and therefore it has to be a legal strategy that is deployed because Greece’s efforts at diplomacy have failed. Only before an international tribunal (on reference from UN) can Greece finally and comprehensively lay out its evidence before the world that the sculptures were illegally removed, that there was no permission ever given, that it was only corruption and bribery that allowed for the cultural plunder of the sculptures and that the birthplace of democracy is entitled to the return of the “keys to its ancient history”.
Losing Your Marbles
In October the podcast “Stuff the British Stole” by the Australian broadcaster, film critic and writer, Marc Fennell, featured a stirring account of the Australian campaign for return with interviews with seasoned advocates David Hill, Elly Symons and George Vardas in an episode appropriately called “Losing Your Marbles”. The ABC podcast has reportedly had over 1 million hits.
The case of the Parthenon Sculptures has been on the agenda of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation for almost forty years. Traditionally, both Greece and the UK address the Committee and a joint resolution is issued urging the parties to continue talking to find a breakthrough.
But at the end of September the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee yielded a surprise. The Greek delegation (appearing virtually from Athens) made a forceful submission to the Committee about the continuing obfuscation by the British side and argued in effect that talk was cheap and real action was now required. This resonated with the UNESCO Committee’s chair and delegates. Acknowledging that the Parthenon is an emblematic monument of outstanding universal value inscribed in the World Heritage List, the Committee delivered an unprecedented decision in which it noted the legitimate and rightful demand of Greece and recognised that the case has an intergovernmental character. The UNESCO Committee concluded that the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely on the UK Government and therefore called on the UK to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece on the matter.
The UK delegation was clearly caught by surprise. But UNESCO had spoken and merely echoed what many have argued for years about Britain’s imperial condescension and intransigence.
Mitsotakis goes to London
But it was the Greek PM’s trip to 10 Downing Street in November that brought the Parthenon Marbles into the British public gaze and raised the international profile of the campaign and the Greeks’ steely determination.
Mitsotakis made a forceful case for the reunification of the sculptures and offered the prospect of Greece reciprocating by means of recurring long-term loans of rare Classical Greek artefacts to fill the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum. As the Greek PM pointed out, simply refusing to discuss the topic seems to be a rather an anachronistic approach given the context of everything that has been happening in terms of the return of cultural treasures.
Predictably, Boris Johnson simply pulled out the well-worn British Museum playbook, reiterating the UK’s longstanding position that this matter is one for the trustees of the British Museum.
Mitsotakis has at last made the issue of return of the Elgin Marbles an important aspect of Anglo-Hellenic relations although more pressure still needs to be applied.
Don’t mention the Marbles
And what are the British Museum Trustees likely to do?
At the outset the museum is at pains to invoke the legal constraints under the British Museum Act on the powers of Trustees to give away, transfer or exchange items.
In early December the newly-appointed Chairman of Trustees, and Johnson’s erstwhile parliamentary colleague, George Osborne, penned an op-ed piece in The Times newspaper declaring that the museum is open to lending its artefacts to “anywhere who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return, including to Greece”.
But this was another false dawn. The British Museum’s own stated policy on the issue of loans is clear on its website. The Trustees will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned on the “simple precondition” that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the object. As its current director has declared, while the museum does engage in long-term loans there was no such thing as “indefinite loans” and the marbles will not permanently return to Greece.
At the same time the UK is still reluctant to engage with the Greeks.
In early December the new UK Ambassador to Greece, Matthew Lodge, met the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, in Athens and discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. Except that you would not know that if you read the social media release by the UK Embassy (in contrast to the tweet from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture).
Greece at the United Nations
Back in 2013, the 3rd International Conference on the Return of Cultural Property, held in Athens and Ancient Olympia, passed a number of resolutions including that States, museums and individuals should act in good faith and initiate dialogues for the return of cultural objects (such as the Parthenon Sculptures) to the original contexts in which they were created.
In December 2021, at the instigation of Greece and with the support of more than 100 member States, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a landmark resolution A/76/L.17 for the return or restitution of cultural property to their countries of origin. As the Greek Ambassador to the UN explained, cultural property is not simply a testimony to a nation’s past but the reflection of the country’s history and heritage as she called for the creation of a proper framework for restitution so as to best inspire the collective conscience of humanity.
In 2015 and again in 2018 Greece had sponsored similar resolutions but the support on the floor of the General Assembly in 2021 was overwhelming and an encouraging refection of Greece’s adept cultural diplomacy and soft power negotiations. If nothing else, the adoption of these resolutions will strengthen calls for the UN to refer the legal question of the return or restitution of significant looted cultural property to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion in order to break the eternal deadlock.
The Return of the Palermo Fragment
At least one fragment of the Parthenon is set to return.
For more than 200 years a piece from the East Pediment of the Parthenon has been on display in the
Museo Archeologico Antonino Salinas in Palermo, Italy (apart from a brief loan spell in Athens in 2008). As 2021 drew to an end an enlightened agreement was unveiled between the Regional Government of Sicily and the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports, Dr Lina Mendoni, involving the museum at Palermo and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, for a long term recurring loan of the fragment with Greece to reciprocate with rotating loans of rare exhibits.
Stephen Fry: Stay classy, Britain
As we say goodbye to 2021, we should draw inspiration from the spirit and tenacity of the 1821 Revolutionaries to find a way forward to resolve this historical impasse and to correct one of history’s great wrongs.
And what better way than to conclude with the great Philhellene Stephen Fry’s appeal to the British in the last days of 2021. The great English actor and writer called for copies of the sculptures to be made for the British Museum, and computer-generated artificial reality used to show visitors how the originals were transported back to Athens.
Returning the sculptures to Athens would indeed be a classy gesture by Britain.
Let’s see what 2022 brings.