On 29 September 2021 the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin (ICPRCP) issued a decision acknowledging the “legitimate and rightful demand" of Greece for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures that were plundered by Lord Elgin more than two hundred years ago and calling for the UK Government to enter into a bona fide dialogue with the Greeks to find resolution to this long-standing cultural property dispute.
Not surprisingly, the UK Government quickly responded that it would challenge the decision without specifying how and went on to restate its position, namely, that the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally and since the British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference, all decisions relating to collections are taken by the Museum’s trustees.
In other words, as far as the British cultural establishment is concerned, we don’t care what UNESCO thinks; the Parthenon Sculptures belong to us and they are not coming back.
The ICPRCP was in 1978 as a permanent intergovernmental body responsible for finding ways to assist with and facilitate bilateral negotiations between the countries concerned for the return or restitution of cultural property in order to enable people, in the words of the then Director-General of UNESCO, to “ recover part of its memory and identity … in an atmosphere of mutual respect between nations.”
When Melina Mercouri, the Greek Minister for Culture, first raised the issue of return at the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies held in Mexico in August 198, her British counterpart replied that the UK Government “could not interfere in the affairs of a private establishment like the British Museum”.
In 1984 the issue of return of the sculptures was placed on the agenda of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee and has remained on the agenda every time the ICPRCP has met since then, some 17 separate Sessions. And since 1984 the Committee has made countless ‘recommendations’ for the resolution of the dispute between Greece and the United Kingdom over the Parthenon Sculptures which the British side has continued to ignore to the present day.
At the ninth session of the Committee held in Paris in September 1996, for example, a recommendation was adopted for the Director-General of UNESCO “to continue his good offices to resolve this issue and to undertake, as a matter of priority, further discussions with both states”.
However, the British side continued to argue that the British Museum was independent of the Government and that the British Museum Act restricted wat could be deaccessioned from its collection. They even claimed that to pass a law requiring the Trustees to return the Sculptures would be regarded as confiscatory and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was later disclosed that this had simply been raised as a “delaying tactic”.
In 2000 before a House of Common Select Committee inquiring into the illicit trade in cultural property, the British Museum emphasised that it holds “in trust for the nation and the world a collection of art and antiquities” and that it constitutes a “reference library of world cultures”, providing an “international context where cultures can be experienced by all, studied in depth and compared and contrasted across time and place”. This was to set the tone for the British stonewall defence.
For good measure the British Museum claimed the sculptures were by now an integral part of English heritage simply because they have been in London longer than the modern state of Greece has been in existence.
At the eleventh session of the Committee held in Cambodia in March 2001, a senior cultural law expert conceded that whilst the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures was very important UNESCO had been “trying to avoid any confrontation” during the meetings of the Intergovernmental Committee.
In 2003 the new director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, was blunt in his assessment of the Greek claims when he declared that the Parthenon is a ruin and one has to recognise that the Elgin Marbles’ life as part of the Parthenon is over.
This condescending attitude was to be echoed by his successor, Dr Hartwig Fisher, some 16 years later when Fischer infamously described Lord Elgin’s plunder and removal of half of the sculptures from the Parthenon as a “creative act”.
ICPRCP again met in Paris in September 2010 at the 17th Session and issued yet another “recommendation” in which it again invited the Director General to assist in convening the necessary meetings between Greece and the United Kingdom, with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable solution to the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures. When Greece sought in 2013 to invoke the mediation and conciliation procedures available through UNESCO to attempt to mediate the dispute, the British side declined.
Subsequent meetings held of the ICPRPC in 2014, 2016 and 2018 all yielded the same predictable recommendation urging the parties to continue talking. Little comfort when one side has no intention of doing so.
But at the just concluded 22nd Session of the ICPRCP the UNESCO Committee finally bared its teeth under the chairmanship of the newly-elected Maged Mosleh (Egypt).
The Committee’s main focus was on two items of cultural looting: the Parthenon Sculptures (Greece) and the case of the Broken Hill Man Skull (Zambia). There was also some discussion regarding an illicitly acquired Benin bronze in the hands of a Belgian art dealer but detained by British authorities pending resolution of the dispute between Nigeria and Belgium.
The Broken Hill Man Skull case is interesting because it is generally regarded as the first historically significant human fossil found in Africa when it was discovered in a Zambian mine in 1921. The skull was ‘donated’ by the Rhodesia Broken Hill Mine Company to the British Museum, but later transferred to the Natural History Museum.
Since the 1970s, the Zambian government has sought to have Broken Hill skull returned because of its immense cultural significance to Zambia. In 2018 the case was first raised at the ICPRPC with a recommendation made that Zambia and the UK should pursue bilateral discussion after the British side claimed that the Museum was “committed to constructive participation in this dialogue”.
But as with the case of the Parthenon Sculptures, the British idea of constructive dialogue is grounded in obstructionism.
The UK representative, Head of Cultural Property at the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and formerly a curator at the British Museum, proceeded to re-state the British position by repeating, in part, the actual British submission made to the Committee in 2018 which asserted that the museum is a public institution that operates independently from government and its collection is the property and responsibility of the Museum Trustees, and not the UK Government. And for completeness, and this was not lost on the Greek delegation, the UK representative reminded the ICPRPC of the “strict legal constraints” on the powers of Trustees to give away, transfer or exchange items under the British Museum Act (which also governs the Natural History Museum).
Despite this, the UK representative added rather disingenuously that the Museum “would like to engage in meaningful bilateral discussions”. Yet another false dawn.
The ICPRPC Chair’s exasperation was obvious as he wanted to know what actually was the British Government’s view as opposed to the position of the Natural History Museum’s Board of Trustees. At this point, the Greek delegation intervened to remind the Committee that the ICPRCP as an intergovernmental committee was established to deal with issues between member states and that they should not be delegated to issues between museums.
On the second day of the ICPCRP Greece made its presentation via video conference from the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Its delegation comprised the new Director General of the Acropolis Museum, Nikolaos Stampolidis, the Secretary General of Culture, George Didaskalou, the Head of the Directorate of Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods, Vasiliki Papageorgiou, and the highly-regarded legal advisor from the Special Legal Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr Artemis Papathanassiou.
The Greek presentation was direct and to the point: the dismembered Parthenon Sculptures, split between London and Athens, must be reunited.
Dr Papathanassiou noted that the Greek request had been on the Committee’s agenda as a pending case since 1984 and yet the British government continues to claim that it is a matter for the British Museum Trustees alone even though, as far as international law is concerned, the obligation to return state cultural artefacts lies squarely on the government and not on a museum.
The Greek delegation also submitted that recent Ottoman archival scholarship and historical data indisputably prove that Lord Elgin never obtained proper legal permission or approval to remove the sculptures so that the perpetual claim made by the British side that the sculptures were legally acquired, fails.
The Greek delegation pointed out that the UK was not keen on UNESCO involvement in the matter and for that reason had opposed mediation to be held under the aegis of UNESCO. The unique wonder of the Parthenon Sculptures serves to refute the argument made by the British side that any legal decision to return them to Greece would be a precedent for emptying Western museums of looted or illicitly-acquired cultural treasures.
Professor Stampolidis explained that the Parthenon Sculptures differ from other museum objects in that they emanate from a surviving monument and their reunification to the parent structure would restore the integrity of a world heritage monument and would not create a precedent for other acts of return. The Parthenon stands alone.
The Greek delegation cast doubt on the British Museum’s claim that it “takes its commitment to be a world museum seriously”, pointing out that the Parthenon Gallery has been closed to the public since the beginning of 2020 and until further notice. The sculptures can no longer remain imprisoned. This comment was particularly relevant as we shall see below.
The Greek representatives argued that the Acropolis Museum’s top-floor Parthenon gallery is the “perfect antidote” to the dark Duveen gallery in the British Museum and that the only truly creative act would be the return of the Sculptures to where they belong, to the Parthenon, the symbol of Western Civilisation. This also puts a lie to the claim that the British Museum is somehow the best place for the Parthenon Sculptures to be seen in the context of their rich contribution to the history of the whole of humanity.
In conclusion, the Greek delegation argued that, despite repetition of well-known British arguments concerning Greece’s long standing just demand for rehabilitating a unique world heritage monument which remains a mutilated wonder of the world, the British government needs to reconsider tits stand and to recognise, among other things, that the international claim for the restitution of the aesthetic unity of the Parthenon outweighs any other possible counter arguments.
The UK response was sadly predictable.
The British delegate, Rosie Weetch, once again resorted to the well-worn arguments mounted by the British Museum in the past, even resorting to re-reading some of the talking points from the British submission made at the 2018 ICPRCP Session that the sculptures were legally acquired by the museum under the laws pertaining at the time and are lawfully in the possession of the Trustees of the Museum, which is independent of government. Ms Weetch also claimed that the British Museum offers the “sense of a wider cultural context” for the sculptures and that it will continue to improve interpretation of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collection. The British Museum, she claimed, is committed to “respectful collaboration” worldwide to the sharing and lending of the collection for the benefit of the widest possible audience to promote Ancient Greek culture.
After almost 40 years we are still at the stage of the possibility of a ‘respectful dialogue’, nothing more. A sense of growing frustration must have pervaded the actual and virtual room of the UNESCO Committee.
The Committee Chair wryly noted that the UK Government is quite clear in presenting the view of the Trustees of the British Museum and again pointedly wanted to know the British Government’s position.
Other delegates joined in the discussion. Egypt pointed out that the sculptures were made by the Greeks in Greece to honour the Greeks and it was extremely disappointing to still have a case pending before the ICPRCP since 1984, adding that the Committee did not need a seventeenth identical recommendation and that it was time to take a firm stand.
The delegate from Zambia agreed and stressed that the Committee needed to take more drastic measures, calling for a “tough decision” to be given because of the seemingly repetitive UK arguments.
Italy said that it was really time for a solution to be achieved, especially as it needs to lend momentum to the role and credibility of the ICPRCP since the claim by Greece goes to the issues of memory and identity and raises matters of diplomatic, historical and aesthetic significance, and not just legal questions.
The Palestinian representative described the call for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures as a cri de coeur and asked why the British Government had refused mediation. Syria declared that the Parthenon Sculptures belong to Greece and regretted that the negotiations are not going anywhere because of the calculated vagueness of the UK Government’s response. Cyprus joined the chorus and urged the ICPRCP Committee to comply with the will of Greece.
Greece in response lamented the fact that since 1984 there had been sixteen separate recommendations adopted by the ICPRCP with no positive outcome. It urged the committee to take a decision for the return of specific cultural property, especially as Greece’s call back in 2013 for mediation and a productive dialogue for resolution of its just request had been rejected. “Nothing is happening”, remarked Dr Papathanassiou.
The Committee Chair, Mr Mosleh, at this point had heard enough, declaring that the case of the Parthenon Sculptures had inspired the Committee to look at the bigger picture and not to dilute the case. He urged his colleagues to take a decision and pointedly added:
“I did not hear the UK position. I heard the British Museum Trustees’ position”.
And with that the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee showed its hand and unanimously handed down Decision 22. COM 17. After noting that the request for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures had been inscribed in its Agenda since 1984 and that Parthenon is an emblematic monument of outstanding universal value inscribed in the World Heritage List., the decision stated that the ICPRCP was aware of the of the legitimate and rightful demand of Greece and recognised that the case has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely on the UK Government.
The decision went on to state that the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee had deep concerns that the issue still remains pending and was profoundly disappointed that its respective recommendations, including mediation, have not been observed by the UK. It called on the UK to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece.
Although the ICPRCP is an advisory body, it represents the cultural heritage conscience of UNESCO. And it acted accordingly by expressly acknowledging the “legitimate and rightful demand" of Greece for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures and declaring that the dispute is and was intergovernmental in character and as a result the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures rests squarely on the United Kingdom.
After the decision was delivered it was reported that the UK government had been taken by surprise and was dismayed that the UNESCO committee handed down such a strongly-worded decision rather than merely adopting the usual recommendations of previous sessions. A government spokesperson was quoted as saying that the British side would challenge the decision because of issues “relating to fact and procedures with UNESCO” without specifying what they were.
And then, as if on auto-cue, the spokesperson continued:
“Our position is clear - the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference. All decisions relating to collections are taken by the Museum’s trustees.”
This response, although entirely predictable, underscores what many have known for years. For almost four decades, culminating in the just-concluded Session of the ICPRCP, the British side has displayed its utter contempt for the UNESCO process as well as its total lack of respect for Greece by failing to engage with the Greek side in any genuine attempt to find a resolution. The UK Government by its own written and oral submissions made to the 22nd Session of the ICPRCP made it clear that it does not savour the prospect of entering into any meaningful, let alone bona fide, dialogue with Greece.
But the story does not end there.
In the wake of the UNESCO decision, attention has turned once again to the closure of the Duveen Gallery (as foreshadowed by the Greek delegation during its presentation).
It will be recalled that the UK representative before the UNESCO Committee repeated the mantra that the British Museum is a universal museum which millions of people from all over the world are able to visit free of charge. This continues to be a cornerstone of the British Museum narrative.
In its latest Report and Accounts for 2020/2021 the British Museum promotes itself as a “world collection for the world – for experts and the general public, for anyone who chooses to enter its doors”. It claims to offer a “competing array of histories” which encourages the visitor think about the past and to ponder other cultures and ways of being. And, according to the museum’s report, the stewardship of the Trustees has been an essential ingredient in making the British Museum the “cosmopolitan institution” it is.
The only reference to any problem within the Duveen Gallery is a sleight of hand when the report, under the heading “Risk management framework and risk assessment” states that there a “number of risks associated with the poor condition of the estate, for example increased maintenance costs and the closure of spaces”. Nothing about the water-logged Duveen Gallery which houses the peerless Elgin collection of Parthenon Sculptures or the closure of the Greek galleries.
The irony of these self-serving statements is not lost on the Greeks.
In 2018 and again earlier this year the Duveen Gallery has been leaking. The website of the British Museum states that the Greek galleries are "closed until further notice" due to "regular maintenance works". It is a sensitive matter for the British Museum following on the decision by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee.
But the spectre of structural defects and water leaks in The British Museum will not go away. When confronted by the London correspondent for the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, Yannis Andritsopoulos, about the continued closure of the Duveen Gallery (Room 18), a British Museum spokesperson issued a statement which acknowledged water ingress in some of the gallery spaces in the past and advised that “essential works being undertaken are part of a programme of building maintenance and conservation which will help enable future works on the Museum estate” and that as a result “Galleries 14 to 18 on the ground floor have been temporarily removed from the public access route”. The spokesperson concluded:
“There is no confirmed date for their reopening, but we are working towards later this autumn.”
Weasel words now abound at Bloomsbury. The phrase “removed from the public access route” is in reality a stark admission that the visitor experience in the British Museum – the self-appointed “museum of and for the world” - has been diminished when it comes to the classical works of Ancient Greece and, in particular, the Parthenon Sculptures.
The time for more ‘mutually respectful’ dialogue (for which some are still calling) is well and truly over. The contemptuous and disingenuous position adopted by the British side has put paid to that.
In any event, the current Boris Johnson-led Government is most unlikely to budge. The British Conservatives are unfortunately beholden to a crude, colonialist-derived ‘retain and explain’ mindset that would have the United Kingdom hold on to the spoils of imperial plunder in the name of English heritage, whether they be the Parthenon Sculptures, the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, the Maqdala Treasures from Ethiopia, or even a Palaeolithic human skull looted from Zambia
In reality, as one commentator presciently wrote, the British Museum is an institution in which the stratified layers of its own past persist in the present. In the case of the Parthenon galleries the museum has opted for the most mundane and uninspiring interpretation of the sculptures which merely serves to reinforce the obvious, namely, that the British Museum is not the sole interpreter of the past. And now those galleries remain closed until further notice.
Greece must finally seize the day and use the considerable cultural diplomatic and soft power cache it has built up both within UNESCO and the General Assembly of the United Nations to pave the way for a formal application to be lodged with the International Court of Justice seeking an advisory opinion from the UN’s own judicial body on the increasingly-important legal question under customary international law concerning the return of significant looted cultural artefacts to their countries of origin.
Without such decisive action – and instead merely resorting to endless entreaties – it is clear that nothing will change and the Parthenon Sculptures will remain locked away in the dark recesses of the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum.
By George Vardas
Mr George Vardas is the Vice-President of The Australian Parthenon Committee