One man, eyes brimming with emotion, looking up at an item of great importance to his culture, of historic significance and representation. Across the back of his black t-shirt, the words “I am Greek and I want to go home.” Though that journey home has been but a dream for over 200 years it may be inching closer to becoming a reality thanks not only to the political and diplomatic efforts of numerous committees around the world, but to campaigns at the grassroots level which have been raising awareness in ways that go viral on social media, reaching millions around the world.
Jim Mellas is the Greek Australian barrister who, fuelled by determination to see the return of the Parthenon Marbles that reside in the British Museum, back to their rightful home of Greece, staged a silent protest a few months ago at the Museum, which he streamed live.
You’ve seen the video footage and photographs, including the aforementioned shot of him looking at the Caryatid, now it’s time to find out more about the man on a mission to see the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.
GCT spoke to the Melbourne-born Mellas about his plan to stage the silent protest, how he felt standing with the historic Parthenon Marbles, the influence of his legal background on his actions, and his refusal to give up on seeing them back on Greek soil where they belong.
What part of Greece are your parents from?
My parents are both from the island of Lefkada in the Ionian Islands. My late father came to Australia in 1955 and my mother in 1956.
When was the first time you visited Greece and what impressions did it make on you?
My first visit to Greece was not until I was 28 years old in 1990 when my wife and I travelled to Greece. At the time we visited Athens, Lefkada, Thessaloniki, and Mykonos and I instantly fell in love with the place. I remember being able to see the Parthenon from many parts of Athens and it looked amazing but I will never forget the first time I walked up to the Acropolis and how breathtaking the Parthenon was once you were up there and close.
In more recent years I have travelled to and around Greece almost every June/July for periods of 4 – 6 weeks. My children, who are 24 years old and 15 years old, have also developed a strong attachment to Greece. I have been to many of the islands and though I have enjoyed every part of Greece that I have been to, my attachment to Lefkada has become stronger as has my appreciation for Athens which is without a doubt my favourite city.
What made you decide to pursue a career in law?
Being a barrister was something that I had wanted to do since about the age of 10 years old. As a child, I read widely (books and newspapers – our milk bar was a sub – news agency and I read every newspaper I could get my hands on every day). In particular, I loved reading biographies. Politics and sport were my favourite topics growing up (I grew up living 200 metres from Punt Road Oval and have been a Richmond Supporter (AFL) all my life). One of the earliest biographies I had read was about Robert Menzies (the former Prime Minister of Australia). He had been a barrister before he had entered Parliament and it was at that time that I started wanting to be a barrister when I grew up.
So I pursued a career in the law first as a solicitor and then later as a barrister. I have been practising law now for 33 years. My daughter also decided to pursue a career in the law and has just finished her law degree and is now completing her practical training before she gets admitted to practice early next year.
When do you recall first knowing about the issue with the stolen marbles and what were your initial thoughts?
My late father had a great knowledge of history and in particular, Ancient Greek History and growing up discussions about history were a regular source of conversation between us. It was at a very young age that I learned about Lord Elgin taking the Parthenon Sculptures though it was not until I was much older that I realised the full extent of what he had actually taken and the damage he caused to the Parthenon. The use of the term “Parthenon Marbles” which is how they are known around the world in a way downplays what they really are. They are in fact sculptures, statues, metopes and friezes from the Parthenon.
When I first visited the Parthenon in 1990 I realised the extent of what had been taken. The more I then read about the issue the more passionate I became about it. I found it an atrocity and also an insult to all Greeks around the world that Lord Elgin was given “permission” by an occupying power (the Ottoman Empire) to take them only 19 years before the revolution began. I was incensed that a British Aristocrat instead of in some way helping and supporting the Greeks (like Lord Byron did throughout that period), decided to take half of the most important structure in history back to his mansion and display it in his home (only to later sell the Marbles to the British Government when he was in financial difficulty.) Of course as I read more and more about British Colonialism over the years I realised that looting and stealing from countries they colonised and other countries was normal for them (and of course not just limited to the British but the other poets at the time). Of course, the British Government was complicit in the theft as they bought them (though the parliamentary debates at the time she that there were many who believed they should be returned to Athens). Of course, there is doubt as to whether Elgin actually had permission to take them as it was found that his permission related only to tables that had already fallen to the ground and to make copies of the others. Instead, he proceeded to saw off half of the Parthenon and ship it back to Britain (and of course one of the ships sunk and remained at the bottom of the ocean for 2 years.) The more I read, the more passionate I became about the issue.
When and how did the idea for a protest come about?
Though I had travelled to Europe many times I had no desire to go to London and the main reason for not wanting to go, or “boycotting” London, was their refusal to return them to Greece. The arrogance of the British can be best seen by the attitudes of many conservatives and the trustees of the British Museum. In recent years though, my desire to see the other parts of the Parthenon started to gain momentum. Polls in Great Britain continually showed that the majority of the British population wanted them to be returned to Athens. So in the last 2 years I decided it was time to go to London and see them. I decided however that if I was going to go I could not just simply visit but I had to make some sort of protest to the British that they should be returned and I wanted people to know about my protest. I wanted it to be an issue that people were aware of around the world particularly in Greece where over the years talking to people I have found that there is an attitude of “No point in doing anything as they will never give them back to us.” So I decided to get a t-shirt made. I had seen a campaign on photos and videos a few years ago with the slogan “I am Greek and I want to go Home” – so I had the t-shirt made with that slogan at the back and #Return the Marbles at the front. I also started to realise that through social media and in particular Facebook and Twitter you can reach thousands around the world.
My thoughts were if I go to the British Museum and do a live stream of my protest on social media and if it was then shared by my friends with their friends and so on then thousands could view my protest.
What were you hoping to achieve with the protest?
Firstly, it was something that I wanted to do given my passion for the issue. I also thought that it could raise awareness about the issue for Greeks around the world, non-Greeks and in particular the Greeks in Greece. There have been many people involved in campaigns to return the Marbles and increase awareness about the issue and many of these have been very successful. I just saw the need to build on that and create a grassroots interest and campaign which I thought could gain momentum. I actually thought that seeing an audacious 56-year-old Hellenic Australian Barrister in a black T-shirt walk into one of the most conservative places in the world, the British Museum and do a live protest demanding the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Athens might resonate with many people – it has!! I can almost hear the trustees of the British Museum disapprovingly talking about the “impertinence of the Australian from the colonies.” I think it is something the average Greek in Greece can relate to and they have in their hundreds of thousands.
When did the protest take place and how long were you at the Museum?
The protest took place on 22 June 2018. I booked into a tour of the British Museum that afternoon at about 3pm. I left my hotel in Trafalgar Square in the morning and walked around London with the t-shirt on all day. I had amazing responses throughout the day from people in the street who spoke to me and were very supportive of the cause. When I arrived at the Museum the tour guide who as very “British” looked at the t-shirt and asked if I intended to cause trouble – I explained to her that I was a barrister from Melbourne and was going to do a peaceful protest in the Museum. She told me that she hoped there would not be a problem getting in and if the guards said anything she would try and get me in. I was in the museum for 2 or 3 hours looking at the various exhibitions. Prior to seeing the Parthenon exhibition, I viewed all the other exhibitions and was amazed at the extent of what the British had taken from the world – the Egyptian, Assyrian and Indian exhibitions in particular.
How did you feel walking in and seeing the Marbles?
I won’t say that I was nervous but I was a little anxious as to how it would go and whether security would intervene (I had a plan B of course – if security did stop me then that would form part of my live feed and video and I would continue the protest outside the Museum. So I made sure I had a good look at all the Parthenon Sculptures before I started the protest.
Seeing the sculptures reinforced the magnitude of what Elgin had done. I could not find the Caryatid in that section of the Museum and looked around to no avail. It was not part of the tour for some reason. I had to ask an official at the Museum to find it and interestingly the first person couldn’t tell me. I eventually found it and that by far was the most emotional moment for me – it was behind a wall prior to the entrance to the Parthenon Gallery. As soon as I saw the Caryatid in such a dull and disgusting room I became very emotional – by that time I had finished the live protest. I was in tears and had that photo taken looking up at the Caryatid with the back of my T-shirt saying “I am Greek and I want to go home”.”
What plan would you devise for returning the Marbles to Greece?
This is something I have thought long and hard about both before and since the protest and the massive reaction to it. There are many groups that have been working hard at a diplomatic and political level to have the Marbles returned. In Australia there is the Australian Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, there are also British and Belgium committees. There is a head committee, the International Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Since my protest, I have had contact with many people from these committees. I have spoken to Emmanuel Cominos who is the chair of the group and have chatted to others on the various committees such as George Vardas, Russell Darnley, Elly Symon, and Marlen Taffarrello. They have worked hard on this issue for many years and continue to do so. I have also been contacted by other groups who have been involved with campaigns such as Marbles Reunited and recently by a Greek gentleman Evangelos Fulaktos who has started a similar group in Greece. I would like to work together with these groups to lobby, protest and negotiate the return of the Marbles to Athens. If we can continue the grassroots momentum around the world then together with the diplomatic and political efforts of these groups it can be achieved. As I have said, most British Polls say that the people of Britain want them returned. The leader of the Labor party in Britain has said if he wins the next election he will return them. The Greek Minister for Culture recently wrote to the British Minister to engage in mediation regarding the Marbles, as recommended by UNESCO.
I have a view that many antiquities looted and stolen should be returned to the countries they were taken from, though the Parthenon Sculptures are in a different category – the structure they were taken from still remains on the Acropolis and it is important that the sculptures be reunified – it would be impossible to do it at the Parthenon but they can join the remainder of the Parthenon Sculptures in the magnificent Acropolis Museum overlooking the original Parthenon. There is also a worldwide movement questioning the role of Museums in 2018 particularly the moral aspects of displaying stolen and looted artefacts and antiquities belonging to other countries. I have set up a Facebook page – “Jim Mellas – Return the Parthenon Sculptures”– and have approximately 5,400 followers and that is increasing weekly. I post regularly about the Parthenon Sculptures, the British Museum, the Acropolis Museum and demands made by other countries for the return of their artefacts. The response from those following my page has been phenomenal.
What feedback have you received?
The feedback has been unbelievable particularly on Facebook. My original post on Facebook had about 73,000 views. It was posted on hundreds of Greek sites around the world. For some reason, Facebook took it all down on 1 August. I reposted it on Facebook and on Twitter. The new post on Facebook has had over 176,000 views so that video on Facebook has had close to a quarter of a million views. It has also had many thousands of views on Instagram and recently on Youtube and LinkedIn. Above and beyond that I get many hundreds of reactions, responses and messages each and every day mainly from Greeks around the world who are very supportive of my campaign. Just last week a gentleman with a Greek background but born in Boston USA but now living with his English wife in Chania, Crete went to the Museum with a similar t-shirt to mine to do his own protest which I posted on my site. Last month a man from Greece did a similar protest also. Hopefully, this support will continue and increase. I have had great support from Greeks in Greece as well with many many thousands of messages. A week ago a Greek man sent me a message #keepfighting #dontcrackunderpressure – I won’t! Others have expressed pride in what I have done. It is very indicative of the many messages I get from Greeks around the world.
Finally, if I can inspire hundreds of thousands of people to go to the British Museum and do their own protest then that might also have an impact – there have been some followers of my page who have done that already.
To what degree do you think your law background influenced your decision to stage a protest?
To a certain degree it did – a barrister’s role is to argue a case and be an advocate (a fearless advocate for the cause). From a young age, I had the ability to talk and to argue. My advocacy skills as a lawyer and as a barrister I guess refined and developed that ability and those skills. Public speaking is what I do on a daily basis and arguing cases in court. I have been a public speaker for many years and speak regularly at legal seminars and conferences – I have also had a few stints on the radio over the years on legal talkback shows. All of that I guess influenced what I did. I’m very optimistic – if you do not try then you won’t achieve anything. My protest from inside the Museum as audacious and daring to a large extent – it was a different approach to the issue and the cause and it is an approach that seems to have resonated with many people.