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Australian campaigners confident of Elgin Marbles return

Former Australian Broadcasting Corporation boss, David Hill, a campaigner for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, is confident that they will soon be sent back to Athens.

Sydney Morning Herald [1]

Marbles are back in play
March 19 2003

Although the British Museum has refused to give up the Elgin marbles, a group led by former ABC boss David Hill is confident it can get them back to the Parthenon. Geraldine O’Brien reports.

This week, in a speech in Athens, the former ABC boss, David Hill, confidently predicted an end to the long-running and acrimonious dispute between Greece and Britain over the Parthenon marbles. (It is a point of honour in some circles to refer to them as the Parthenon, rather than Elgin, marbles, thereby honouring their origin rather than the British ambassador who somewhat dubiously “acquired” them in 1801.)

Hill’s prediction – made at an international symposium – seems at odds with the recent decision by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, to break off negotiations with the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. The marbles would stay in Britain, where they could “do most good”, MacGregor said. They would never be returned to Greece – although he did suggest that the Greek Government should accept a computer-generated version of what the 2500-year-old marbles would look like on the Parthenon.

Yet Hill, who is executive director of the British committee (“They were a bit of a sleepy hollow and when I met some of them in London they were keen for me to help them,” he explained), and his local counterpart, Jenny Bott (otherwise chairwoman of the Australia Council), are increasingly confident. Why?

For a start, they are winning the public relations war. A Mori public opinion poll, commissioned by the British committee last October, showed 56 per cent of those polled favoured the marbles returning to Greece under certain conditions already agreed to by the Greeks. Only 7 per cent opposed their return on any terms. Interestingly, the highest level of support for their return came from people who had visited them in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum.

(The conditions were that Britain could continue to hold legal title to them – although the legality of that title is hotly contested by a number of lawyers expert in the area; that a new museum be built in Athens to house them; that Greece would lend other exhibits to the British Museum in their stead, and that Greece waive claim to other items of Greek antiquity in British collections.)

A number of British Olympic medallists have called for their return, as have prominent Brits such as Ken Livingstone, the Lord Mayor of London; former Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot; Rumpole’s creator, John Mortimer; actors Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Sean Connery and Joanna Lumley, and world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and – most surprisingly – representatives of the Turkish Government, whose Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, said in 2000 that it was now “an obligation” for Turkey to assist since their “seizure by Elgin” took place during the Ottoman empire’s occupation of Greece.

Further, the Blair Government has recently told the British committee that the return of the marbles is a matter for the museum, not the Government. But, having jointly announced with the Prime Minister, John Howard, “in principle” support for the return of Aboriginal human remains held by British institutions, Blair commissioned Professor Norman Palmer to investigate how that might occur and what constraints there were on repatriation. Palmer’s report is due by the end of this month and, according to Hill, is likely to recommend the formation of an independent panel to determine individual requests. For Hill, “This will be a significant precedent. I don’t see how you can maintain a distinction between ‘bones’ and ‘stones’.”

In Australia, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser are among the prominent names enlisted to the cause, while museum professionals such as Des Griffin, the former director of the Australian Museum (itself a leader in repatriation of culturally significant items), Terence Measham (a former director of the Powerhouse) and leading consultant Kylie Winkworth are active members of the Australian Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles.

In a recent edition of the journal Museum National, Winkworth suggested that arguments for the marbles’ return have shifted from legalistic questions of title to the question of “what is the right course of action for this collection [which has been] sundered from its related parts and place of context”. “The Parthenon and its sculptures are a single, integrated work of art,” she wrote, “which belong together as part of the world heritage of the Acropolis. The return of the marbles is an opportunity … to piece together a work designed as a coherent narrative and a unified artistic scheme. It is a travesty of museum practice to dismember this …”

This is not just one person’s opinion. The code of ethics for ICOM, the International Council of Museums, commits members to engage in real dialogue with groups claiming the return of significant items, and the Museums Association of Britain and Museums Australia have condemned the recent statement signed by 18 leading international museums defending the retention of looted or illegally acquired artefacts on the grounds of the “importance and value of universal museums”.

But that argument is undercut by its own logic. If, indeed, the Parthenon marbles are not a specifically Greek national treasure, how much more tenuous is their claim to be a British national treasure? As truly “international” treasures, they could as well be housed in the splendid museum designed by the Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi, which is now under construction within view of the Acropolis, as they could in London. Indeed, on grounds of equity of access, they would be better housed in Athens since more people visit the Acropolis than visit the British Museum.

And in case logic does not prevail, the Greeks will tighten the screws on MacGregor and his supporters just a fraction more. For when the new Acropolis museum is finished next year, its entire upper floor – aligned with the Parthenon so that the marbles it is designed to house can be viewed in direct relation to the building they were designed for – will be left empty until such time as the marbles are returned. It would, says Winkworth, become “an eloquent and shaming advertisement of the British Museum’s position”.