2018 – The year that changed the antiquities and trophy museum world.
The Return is in sight now. In the last year there were numerous, many unexpected, breakthroughs in the worldwide campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures and other looted or stolen antiquities. It was the first time in over 200 years that the solid wall of colonial era thinking holding the collections of colonial trophy museums started to crack in multiple places. We can look forward in 2019 to moving close to the final decision by various European governments and museums to return unethically acquired collections. 2019 is finally, what we predicted, the dawn of a new day! Important advances in 2018 –
1. Jeremy Corbyn, the UK leader of the opposition, states that the Parthenon Sculptures belong to Greece and will be returned when the Labour Party comes to power.
2. Geoffrey Robertson QC ,the well known UK lawyer and lecturer, whose practice, Doughty Street Chambers, includes Amal Clooney, declared, independently, that Brexit was the opportunity Greece had to demand the return from the British Museum. Independently, IPSACI, our organisation, through an interview of its chairman with Deutsche Welle, explained that Brexit was the instrument where Greece could impose on Britain the return of the Sculptures, as Greek parliamentary approval is a condition for Brexit ratification. Alexis Mantheakis was immediately attacked, as expected by the tabloid British press as “blackmailing” the UK and the call was taken up by other media, showing the strength of the Brexit veto proposed. The interview was also responded to negatively by the Greek state which had never demanded the return since 1981, put out an announcement that “the Brexit link was the opinion of certain private individuals and did not mirror Greek policy which “was to continue with gentle diplomacy”. A Parthenon campaign group also turned against this unique opportunity to force the return by stating that our ”Brexit link was a silly statement”. There was no further comment when Spain used the Brexit opportunity to demand concessions on Gibraltar, major sovereignty demands, from Britain, which were conceded.
3. The Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos mentions the Parthenon Sculptures ethical issue to Prince Charles during an official dinner in Athens.
4. The Greek Prime Minister brings up the Parthenon Sculptures return issue to Theresa May during his visit to 10 Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister. This falls short of our consistent demand for a direct official request by the Greek government to the British government for the return, but it was a step in the right direction and reported by the world media
5. IPSACI receives two UNESCO clubs of Piraeus and Islands awards for its work in furthering world cultural issues and for its work in supporting and organising its world-wide campaign for the Return of the Sculptures.
6. The British Museum, together with the Louvre and German trophy museums have their case for their colonial collections to be named as “shared heritage” put forward by a director of UNESCO. The immediate outcry from African delegates present stopped this initiative. The attempt to have UNESCO ratify a joined ownership status was the latest attempt for the museums to find an acceptable identity among the growing protests and objections to their looted collections.
7. Though the lost opportunity by Greece to use Brexit for the return, Brexit worked in a different way to push forward the campaign. Brexit negotiations created acrimony and tensions between Britain and the EU leadership. As a result the unified front presented by the Louvre, the British Museum and the German Museums was weakened considerably.
8. Emanuel Macron, the French President, promised the return to African former colonies of thousands of looted and stolen artefacts. The release of a study commissioned by the French government recommended the outright return without conditions of artefacts to Africa. This move angered museums and dealers but “the cat is out of the bag” and European artefacts will without doubt follow soon. We can look forward to the return of the Greek artefacts in the Louvre, especially the Parthenon items there and probably, if demanded, the return of several iconic statues which were acquired by France by underhand methods, one only after two hundred Greek protesting island citizens trying to halt the export of the statue were fired on and killed by French soldiers from a military vessel on which the statue was being loaded in Greece for France.
9. The huge Belgian Colonial Museum has just completed ten years of “decolonisation” of its collections and similar steps are being taken in other European museums today. The trend against holding colonial booty collections is taking root across Europe’s major museums.
10. The British Museum organised talks about which of the collections it has are ”stolen”, an amazing turnaround since they never admitted to any unethical collections being at their Russell Square premises.
11. Latest reports are that the British Museum and others in Britain have appointed committees to study the provenance of artefacts in their possession to identify which ones may be considered as looted or stolen or unethically obtained. This is a very big advance for us as there is now an acceptance of the fact that their many of their collections are booty, or trophy collections, acquired without the consent of the creators or host country.
12. The British Museum which for decades has declared it has protected the Parthenon Sculptures better than the Greeks were embarrassed when photographs of a leaking roof and buckets next to the Parthenon Sculptures appeared in the world press showing flooding of the Duveen Hall and a filthy skylight. Photos were released by a visitor who in the summer showed that the airconditioning of the Parthenon Rooms was inadequate and a side door was left open to bring in cooler air from the street with its traffic pollution outside. The new Acropolis Museum with its microfiltered state of the art controlled atmosphere, huge glass view to the Parthenon and modern technology and architecture stands as an incontrovertible argument that the Sculptures should be there in Greece.
13. In December the Greek foreign ministry artefacts and antiquities expert, lawyer Dr Artemis Papathanassiou, introduced a motion at the UN general Assembly in New York to declare the protection of conflict and other unethically acquired artefacts and antiquities to be protected items to be returned. The motion also mentioned that proceeds from antiquity sales have been used to finance terrorism and conflicts. The Greek motion was carried in the UN General Assembly with no vetoes, and with 105 countries supporting the motion. A huge step forward for looted collections and for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece!
14. For the first time the flagship of the British conservative press, traditionally opposed to any restitution claim, the Sunday Times, ran a wonderful supportive article saying that the Parthenon Sculptures should be given back to the Greeks because they Sculptures are theirs! This now puts political voices from both sides of the spectrum in Great Britain on our side, a huge advance in press and public opinion support.
15. at IPSACI (www.ipsaci2.com) continue our world wide efforts on multiple levels, lectures, street activities, lobbying, press interviews, video production, talks, as we did with our introductory speaker (our chairman) at the Oxford Union debate on colonial item restitution. Debate won! We als continue on social media and all round involvement of our treasurer and cofounder Alan Smith.
16. Thanks to our thousands of supporters around the world and to those close to us who have given contributions to help us, particularly Alan Smith, Professor Eric Wainwright of Canberra, Penny Kondea of Athens, and Dr Glenn Havskjold of Stanford. This then “was the year that was”, when the whole anti-restitution dam started to crack in multiple places and the momentum will now not stop as there are too many voices, groups, and organisations demanding ethical curating be enforced by the trophy museums. We expect 2019 to be the year that the Parthenon Sculptures issue is settled finally with Britain and the looted sculptures be returned to their rightful owners to be reunited in the magnificent New Acropolis Museum below the Acropolis.
Let's all meet In Athens then!