At the end of last month the British Museum and the UK Government formally declined UNESCO’s request to enter into mediation on the subject of transferring the Parthenon marbles back to Greece. Removed by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon temple in Athens in the 1800s, the marbles were sold to the British Museum in 1816 and have remained there ever since. The sculptures date from 447-432 BC, and are divided between London and a purpose built museum in Athens.
Two formal letters were issued in response to UNESCO’s request for mediation in 2013. One, written by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Europe Minister David Lidington on behalf of the Department for Culture Media and Sport, asserted the British Museum’s legal entitlement to the marbles. ‘The fact remains that the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the laws pertaining at the time and the Trustees of the British Museum have had a clear legal title to the sculptures since 1816.’
‘We have seen nothing to suggest that Greece’s purpose in seeking mediation on this issue is anything other than to achieve the permanent transfer of the Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum to Greece and on terms that would deny the British Museum’s right of ownership.’
In addition, ‘the Trustees of the British Museum are prevented by law from de-accessioning objects in the Museum’s collections unless they are duplicates or unfit for retention.’
A separate letter was sent by Sir Richard Lambert on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. It states the Trustees’ belief that a UNESCO mediation would not be the best path to take. ‘The more constructive way forward’, he writes, ‘is to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world.’
The letter stresses that the Museum’s collections ‘do not belong to the British Government. The Trustees of the British Museum hold them not only for the British people, but for the benefit of the world public, present and future. The trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences.’
It then goes on to justify this further using their current exhibition: Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art. Featuring several of the Parthenon Sculptures alongside other masterpieces lent by international museums, the exhibition is a demonstration, Lambert writes, of ‘the intense humanism of ancient Greek civilisation’.
Greece has sought the return of the marbles since the early 19th century, believing that Lord Elgin essentially stole them. In the past Greece has refused to accept the offer of a loan, fearing this could be construed as implied acceptance of the British Museum’s ownership.
Both letters finish by hinting that they hope that Greece will reconsider the British Museum’s offer to loan them the sculptures. Lambert writes: ‘Nowhere else in the world is it now, or has it ever been possible to see these objects together. The aesthetic impact is considerable, and the intellectual content compelling. This seems to us to point the way forward, as an example of the great public benefit that arises from museums internationally using and sharing their collections in this way’.
The Greek Minister of Culture, Nikos Xydakis, issued a formal response to the letters that expressed his disappointment and urges the UK to reconsider their position, stating: ‘The British side has shown a notable lack of willingness to cooperate and discuss the situation which indicates that they are deliberately ignoring the guidelines set by the ICPRCP [Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property] UNESCO committee. Their negativity and lack of respect towards the services of the mediators are surprising as is the ongoing effort to downgrade the importance of a international issue to a matter between museums. The Greek government will continue its efforts in every way possible and will resubmit the issue anew to the UNESCO General Director, in anticipation of their reaction to the way Britain has handled the situation thus far.’
The news preceded the announcement that Neil MacGregor will soon retire as Director of the British Museum. MacGregor has never wavered from his view that the Elgin Marbles should remain in London, but that he would be happy to loan them. His position is also based on the view that the Trustees of the British Museum have ‘a charitable responsibility imposed by law to ensure that those objects give maximum public benefit’, as he said in an interview with The Times. He added that because about a third of the sculptures have already been destroyed, ‘there’s no possibility of recovering an artistic entity and even less of putting them back in the ruined building from which they came. Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.’
Given the recent development in this ongoing saga, it seems unlikely that the Museum will be changing their position after MacGregor’s departure.