Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture: The Parthenon Sculptures - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Parthenon Sculptures "Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture"
March 19, 2002

The most important item on Greece's cultural agenda is the return of the sculptures removed from the Parthenon between 1803 and 1812 by Lord Elgin, Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (see "The Parthenon Marbles Custody Case," May/June 1999). Beginning in 1829, after gaining independence from the Ottomans, Greece has repeatedly asked for the sculptures' return. Carved between 447 and 432 B.C., the marble frieze panels and freestanding sculptures are, in the words of Robert Anderson, "one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum and they have been at the heart of its classical collections since they were acquired in 1816." Anderson should know, for he is the museum's director.

Architect's renderings show the inside and exterior of the new Acropolis museum. (Ministry of Culture, Hellenic Republic of Greece)



With pressure building to return the sculptures outright or as a long-term loan in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Anderson threw down the gauntlet in an extraordinary editorial published in The Times on January 15. "The British Museum," he wrote, "transcends national boundaries...and its purpose is to display the works of mankind of all periods and of all places. The idea of cultural restitution is the anathema of this principle." The bottom line? "The British Museum's sculptures are where they will remain...." And the Greeks? "Athens would be better advised to preserve its own historic treasures."

The Greek argument for the return of the sculptures is not based on legal grounds, but, says Evangelos Venizelos, Greece's Minister of Culture, on viewing the sculptures and building as a whole: "The sculptures from the Parthenon are not a single item, like a statue, for example the Nike of Samothrace or Aphrodite of Melos, but part of a single monument, the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a building. The marbles are part of this existing building. For me the bottom line is not a legal one or the problem of ownership of the marbles but the fact of the return, the fact of the restitution of the integrity, the unity of the monument. Because of that we would accept the return under the legal form, for example, of a long-term loan from the British Museum."

Given the urban environment of modern Athens, the sculptures could never go back on the Parthenon, so the Greek governent is optimistically building a museum to house the sculptures if they return. Construction of the $42-million new Acropolis museum, designed Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is to begin in June. According to the design, the friezes and statues will be displayed in front of an immense glass wall looking up at the Parthenon. "The most important part of this design," says Venizelos, "is the connection between sculptures and acropolis, direct visual contact with Acropolis and the Parthenon."

Anderson wrote that, "There has been speculation recently as to whether for the Olympic year of 2004, the museum might agree to lend the Parthenon sculptures for exhibition in Athens," but that it is "normal courtesy that such loan requests are addressed first to the Museum Director, but so far no such request has been received." Venizelos is quick to clarify this. "Under the framework of UNESCO, the appropriate international organization, we have official talks and negotiations between Greece and the United Kingdom for the restoration of the Parthenon marbles. Furthermore, I sent two letters to my British countepart, one in my first appointment as Minister of Culture in 1997-1998, and a year ago after my second appointment. My British colleague [Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell] knows very well my official position. And now, after the statement by Mr. Anderson, Demetrios Pandermalis, chairman of the board of directors of the new Acropolis museum, sent a letter directly to the British Museum for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles. So we have three open procedures with the British side: one under UNESCO, one between ministers, and one between the two museums."

Venizelos has offered a carrot to Britain--what he describes as "a series of major important temporary exhibits in the British Museum with important archaeological objects"--should the sculptures be returned. The stick is public opinion, and the January 16 launch of the Parthenon 2004 campaign in Britain will help. Headed by Richard Allan, a member of Parliament and former archaeologist, the campaign's goal is "to create public support and gain media backing for the return of the marbles with which to lobby the Government to make a firm commitment for their restitution," according to a statement on its website (www.parthenon2004.com). So far, it has the backing of a number of celebrities--Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, and Sean Connery--and about 100 of the 659 members of Parliament.

A political boost came on February 5, with the introduction by Edward O'Hara in the House of Commons of a motion calling for the return of the sculptures in time for the 2004 Olympics. "The Parthenon and its sculptures can be fully appreciated only in conjunction," said O'Hara. "The Parthenon cannot come to the marbles. They, therefore, should go back to the Parthenon." But the museum has its own political backers. Prime Minister Tony Blair is on record as telling a Greek newspaper in March 2001 that "The Marbles belong to the Britsh Museum which, as I have been informed, does not intend to return any part of its collection to the country of origin. When asked about the sculptures, Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesmen offer variations of the official line, such as "Our view has not changed in that returning the sculptures to Greece would be unfeasible and, under its statute, the British Museum is not allowed to dispose of any of its pieces" and "The government consider that the Parthenon sculptures were legally acquired by Lord Elgin and have no plans to ask the British Museum to return them."

Museum supporters fear that sending the sculptures back to Greece would set a disastrous precedent. In February, Alan Howarth, a former Education Minister, wrote in The Guardian that, "It has often been asserted by those who wish to send the Elgin marbles to modern Greece that they are a special case and we should be able to treat them in isolation without opening a floodgate of similar requests.... Acceding to the Greek claim would certainly increase the pressure on the great museums and libraries of the world to dismantle their collections. It is foolish, on an impulse of misguided post-imperial revisionism, to undermine the world's great collections." Venizelos tries to be reassuring on this point, returning again the point that this is a matter of the integrity of a single monument. "I understand very well this argument proposed by different museums," he says, "but the marbles of the Parthenon are part of an existing building, not individual artifacts like vases. The Parthenon sculptures aren't independent monuments. This is the difference. Because of that we a have campaign not for other items but only for the Parthenon marbles. There should be no concern about a general campaign for restitution."

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