First Campaign Founder Melina Mercouri
Desecration and not Looting.
On behalf of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee (www.ipsaci2.com) based in New Zealand and Athens, I would like to thank from this venue the organising committee of the Parthenon colloquy, its member organisations, Messrs. Emanuel J. Comino, A.M, Denis Tritaris and the board of the Australian Committee for their kind invitation for us to attend this colloquy and to be able to distribute our paper to the attendees. It is particularly encouraging to see that with these events words are translated into actions and strategies are discussed that can have an effect on public awareness and the organising of a plan to finally bring the Parthenon Sculptures home to Athens where they belong.
Our organisation, IPSACI, and its social media actions groups were founded in 2009 in direct response to the inaction of the British government and the unwillingness of British authorities to enter into honest discussion for the return of the Sculptures. For a time there was even a reputed discussion between Britain and Greece to make part of the new Athens Museum a branch of the British Museum in which the Parthenon Sculptures would be housed, and there was an equally well-intentioned but, in our view, misguided attempt by three Greek ministers of culture to offer to bypass or ignore the question of ownership in order to secure a loan of the Sculptures. A loan and the terms that the British museum demanded, namely a written acknowledgement that the Sculptures belonged to the British Museum and not to Greece greatly alarmed us as this would be the first time in 200 years, or in fact 2,500 years, that a Greek authority was prepared to give up ownership of this integral part of Greek history, culture, and of the Parthenon temple complex. It was this that swung us into action to create our groups and to set up a presence on the Internet where we have registered over 200,000 supporters in Greece and internationally. Additionally we moved into an activist phase with street presence process in Greece and London, multiple media appearances, and gave press briefings around the world.
We differ somewhat from other supporters of the Return in that we initiated a policy of street and other activism and action outside of the venerable discussion venues where important work was already being done. The question today – and this is the crux of the matter we feel - is how much real progress has been made since the Sculptures were looted and removed from Greece, and what the situation is today.
Are we moving in the right direction? Have our joint efforts, in the past and now, brought the matter to the point for the Final Push? Has an argument to make the British position untenable been adopted and acted on?
There has undoubtedly been a significant raising public of awareness in both Britainand the world with pressure brought about by individuals, organisations, and parliamentarians. Important statements have been made in parliaments around the world as we saw in the European Parliament in 1999 when a declaration was made by a large number of MEP’s in support of the restitution.
The truth however is that the British government has not changed its position. In fact Mr Cameron on a recent visit to India categorically ruled out a return of the Parthenon sculptures - and this despite optimism in some quarters at the presence of Mr Clegg who was head of the European Union parliamentarians pro-Greek resolution in 1999, as a significant coalition partner in the present government of the United Kingdom.
Polite contacts by Greek ministers in the past with the British government and in our view, erroneously, with the British Museum authorities (who incidentally have no legal say in any decision to alter the 1933 Museums Act and return the items) resulted in sometimes humiliating treatment of polite and well-meaning Greek government ministers by their British counterparts and the governor of the BM.
We were alarmed by the Greek government inviting the British Museum officials and representatives of the British government to attend the opening of the new Acropolis Museum where only the remaining 40% of the Parthenon sculptures are housed and the rest that are in the British Museum are represented in white plaster casts. It was like asking those who had removed items from your house without your permission to come back and inspect what they had left to get their approval for the wonderful condition we were keeping the rest in. Our protests and positions were broadcast around the world by the international media and we were encouraged to observe an immediate shift and hardening of Greek government policy when Mr Samaras, the then Minister of Culture came down clearly in an interview with the BBC against any further discussion of “borrowing” the items from the British Museum, which he said - and which is our position - would be tantamount to an acknowledgement that the looted items belong to Britain.
The President of the Greek Republic, to his credit, spoke of “hostage items” at the inaugural ceremony of the New Acropolis Museum. A very dangerous strategy of appeasement was thus abandoned and we breathed a sigh of relief. We are proud to have been in any degree instrumental in helping bring this about, but Greece is still a long way from the Return unless there is a radical shift in strategy, and a commitment from the Greek government to giving the cause political and cultural support in the European Union, and in direct talks with the British government. UNESCO which uses the Parthenon logo has occupied itself with the issue but where action is concerned they have “encouraged” the two sides to talk to each other. Talks have failed miserably and UNESCO has kept itself out of the controversy by not taking sides to support what is right.
Progress was made on several fronts in the past, for instance in the renaming of the Elgin Marbles as the Parthenon Marbles and this because of pressure brought about by the British Committee and its worthy members who kindly hosted my visit to London in 2009 and invited me to the House of Commons where they explained their position to me.
The question is now, today, can we honestly say that conditions are ripe for the final push, and that we have brought the issue to a threshold that will make the difference? Public awareness has been increased around the world and importantly in Britain itself where the majority of people according to recent polls support the restitution.
But it is not the people who decide on these matters, except, generally, at election time, nor is it the British Museum that will ever decide in favour of restitution because they clearly will never want to lose their most prestigious collection. The BM governor and committee know the Sculptures are a reason to be approached by important officials, ministers and donors from around the world, and the museum itself will be a poorer place without the Parthenon's Sculptures.
There have been endless changes in position and new excuses brought to the forefront by the British Museum which vacillate between arguments supporting the legality of ownership, and when that is in doubt, which of course is, to the idea of the BM being a “world collection” where items achieved a greater importance than they ever had in their own countries. This could indeed be an argument for debate if one element was not missing. The consent of the original owners and creators of the foreign items and masterpieces being showcased in Russell Square! The latest statement by the BM was that the Parthenon Sculptures were an “integral part of a world heritage exhibition” when in fact they are an integral element to justify the continued importance, drawing power and reason for the existence of the British Museum; a museum that exhibits no domestic items at all, probably world first for a national museum. And indeed, what if it closes because of returning looted or stolen items to their owners? So be it, 50 countries will benefit and will be grateful to see their cultural masterpieces finally returned home, to the benefit of their national museums, tourism, and for their own nationals who may be unable or unwilling to travel to London to admire what represents their own culture and was created by their own forefathers.
There is no legal argument to support the British Museum's position; consent was never given by a government representing the Greek nation nor was there a plebiscite among the people of Greece to authorise the removal of their most valued and iconic monument, the very symbol of their cultural, national, historical, and social identity, nor could there ever be.
ELGIN DID NOT LOOT A MONUMENT – HE DESECRATED A HOLY SITE AND REMOVED RELIGIOUS ITEMS FROM THE MOST IMPORTANT TEMPLEINTHE WORLD.
He did not take away statues, he removed sacred sculptures and items of worship.
This is the dimension, the one that has not been emphasised in the fight for the return.We now take the opportunity to bring it before our esteemed colleagues here, and the world, hoping that we can all put forward this argument. NO museum can hold religious artefacts and sacred items, new or ancient, from another country. It is the fact that when Elginand his workmen removed the sculptures from the Parthenon he was not only mutilating the universal symbol of democracy but was desecrating the most important place of worship of a religion – the Templeof the Goddess Athena. The Acropolis was a holy site for millennia and even today it is referred to by Greeks as the Ιερός Βράχος– The Holy Rock. It has been a place of worship for millennia. A succession of religions used the site but the Τemple of Athena itself, the Parthenon, is the building dedicated to a deity to whom Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aesop, Euclid, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Leonidas of Sparta and the greatest minds, perhaps of all time - physicians, philosophers, statesmen, playwrights, historians, mathematicians and most of the citizens of the known world - at that time prayed to.
The religious aspect of the monument has not been dwelled upon in the overall argument. The crime is immense; both in the removal and by the display of the sacred Sculptures. There can be no law laid down by Man that can justify the destruction, mutilation, or removal of items that another nation, in this case the Ancient Greeks, held or hold to be sacred.
In London the Parthenon sculptures are merely works of foreign archaeological art put on display, for tourists from around the world and local subjects, to see as sculptures and statues, and no more. For their creators, the citizens of Athens and the city states that paid for the construction of the Parthenon with their gold reserves and who watched the creation of the religious figures depicting in the friezes and metopes, marble images of immense beauty and unparalleled harmony, these were items that were more than the sum of their parts - they were the embodiment of Gods and Goddesses.
Which curator or museum guard walking into the Duveen Room is aware that these are holy items, taken first for decorative purposes to satisfy the vanity of one British peer who wanted to decorate his house, and later were passed on to the British Museum to be displayed with secular items far from their place of origin and significance?
We therefore feel that there must be a shift in emphasis in the campaign, and we would like to humbly ask our fellow organisations agree with us on this point: that the religious symbolism and function of the sculptures be brought to the forefront of all our campaigns so that we may place the argument on a new foothold - one that will not allow the British government or the British Museum to convincingly maintain the position that the items belong to Britain.
The British government and the Museum have regularly expressed in private the so-called “Floodgates theory” that claims that, if the British Museum returns one item, then the museum will empty before long. This argument does not move us. The British Museum calls itself a world museum because it has no British items in it to justify its name and relies on its existence and drawing power solely on foreign exhibits, far from their countries of creation and from the nations whose artists created them. The museum, like a veritable Ali Baba’s Cave displays masterpieces of art and religious significance taken almost exclusively after times of war, from countries often under occupation – including colonies of course - and from countries where the body politic was not functioning normally. If the floodgate is opened by rightful owners getting their own cultural items back and the halls of the museum emptying then so be it. We can have little sympathy for the culprit when there is a victim, and in this case it is Greece, its people and its historical items. In any society that claims for itself to be civilised the rule of law and the conscience of its citizens must impose itself on those who rule, not the other way around. This is the essence of Democracy , for which the Parthenon has stood as a symbol for two and a half thousand years.
Perhaps a concerted effort on all levels to put pressure on the decision-makers, and in this case this is ONLY the British government, to force it to return the sculptures should be rooted in the religious significance and sacred nature of the Greek Sculptures. We hear repeated claims that possession of the Sculptures by the British government - the British government itself says this - resulted from an Act of Parliament and therefore the possession of the items is legal. May we remind the British Museum and our good friends here today, united in probably the greatest cultural campaign in the world, that at the time Elgin removed the Sculptures the same government that he was employed by and the same parliament to which Mr MacGregor and the spokeswoman for the British museum allude to was the one that passed laws allowing, ensuring and defending the capture, traffic and trade in black human beings, men, women and children transported in chains in their hundreds of thousands from Africa to colonies of Britain, to the United States and elsewhere, with slave ships defended on the high seas by proud frigates of the Royal Navy. British consuls in West Africapersonally and with the approval of the Crown engaged in the slave trade. It was the same parliament – we refer to the institution not its changing members - that authorised the declaration of war twice on China, weak from internal dissension, to force the Empress to accept payment for silk and other items desired by British merchants, not in silver, in which the British Empirewas running short, but in opium. In the same century that the Parthenon sculptures were being removed the Chinese objected, saying that opium and other drugs that the British Empire was using as currency was ruining the youth of Chinaand sapping its social fabric. The same parliament Mr MacGregor alludes to authorised the invasion of China and the imposition of a destructive narcotic as the currency China,was forced to accept from traders from Britain. It was the same parliament and system of justice that, just a few years before sent men, women and children, Britons primarily, to be hanged, drawn, mutilated, and quartered at Marble Arch in London before ecstatic crowds in order to maintain the rule of parliamentary law. We reject the legality of these actions, legalised by Parliament in Westminster just as we reject any measure passed by Parliament that has attempted to legalise the possession of the sacred looted Parthenon Marbles by the BritishMuseum.
One may analyse in great detail why so many people in so many countries and on so many levels have been unable to resolve this issue and make the British government return the Parthenon Sculptures. We feel that in any contest where there is a legal, personal, or sporting aspect, a successful strategy demands knowledge of the opponent. Without that any victory is a matter only of chance.
If one looks at the position of the British government in those cases where it has returned items that did not belong to her, whether these were spoils of war, looted items or items taken under duress or extreme political or financial pressure, we will see that there is a common denominator in each case – whether we’re talking about giving back the colonies (the prime example being India), physical possessions or individual items – we will see that Britain never gave back any item voluntarily. The return was always the result of pressure put on Britainby her opponents, whether this was financial, political, physical, or military as was the case with insurrections in Burma, Kenya, Cyprus, the result of desperate injured parties finding that civilised dialogue could not influence Great Britain. It was always a matter of pressure, as Ghandi and Kenyatta found, in one way or another, that had to be applied until Great Britainfound its position untenable, not in the ethical sphere, but practically. This indeed is a sad indictment of a great country that has given important institutions to the world and prides itself on its system of law and government.
But it is the reality that we face – the British government will never give back the Parthenon Sculptures unless forced to do so. Our efforts behind-the-scenes to have the Greek government make forceful representations to Mr Cameron and his colleagues were not successful. The weak position of Greece today going through one of its worst crises may to a degree justify the lack of will to break eggs with the British government.
It is therefore up to us, concerned individuals and our organisations around the world to confront the reality that is facing us and to find a strategy that will force the British government to change the Museum’s Act of 1933 and return the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece. It will mean struggle, acrimony to a degree, and an understanding of the “foe”. The position of Britain morally, legally and historically has become untenable regarding this issue. We believe that the time is right for the final push.
Public opinion will be on our side, but public opinion does not legislate. It is up to us to pressure both the Greek government, in no uncertain terms, that they have to take a position - let us not forget that there has been no formal request from Greece as far as we know where the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures since 1981, as incredible as it may seem, when so many other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, heads of state of the US, and even Prince Charles himself have stated that the Sculptures should be returned to Greece. And it is up to us to pressure the British government which we believe can be done actively if we use the very big stick of the religious significance of the Parthenon Sculptures and of the Parthenon itself as a holy site, the integral parts of which must be returned immediately. We believe that we can get religious organisations, churches, leaders and representatives of other religions too to join us with their voices. It is up to us to bend Britain’s arm behind its back on this issue. Mr Cameron and his predecessors have given us no choice, having made it clear that dialogue of any type, expressed by anyone, at any time, in any place, has not changed his or his government’s position one iota, nor is it likely to do so in the future.
Dear Colleagues, we send this message to you from inside this hall in Sydney University in Australia, while our other IPSACI colleagues in Athens are within sight of the sacred monument standing on the hill of the Acropolis next to the wonderfully designed new Acropolis Museum which was built by the Greeks and their supporters to house the entire Parthenon Sculptures in existence today. Our board members, divided between New Zealand, Greece and the United Kingdom were not all able to attend this important coming together in Sydney today, so I have spoken for them.
Finally may I make a personal observation regarding the practical issue and how easy it is for Britain to resolve it.
If Britain could give back India, she can certainly empty one room in a London museum. That is all it will be for England. But for Greece and the rest of the civilised world the emptying of that one room and the return of the Sculptures to their rightful traditional home in Attica will be a magnanimous act that will cement the relations of Greece and the United Kingdom, shower honour on the British prime minister who will sign the Act of Restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures, and it will go done in history as a great act by a great nation.
Chairman and Governing Board member on behalf of
The International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee, Inc (NZ), IPSACI,