January 6, 2011

Greece states that it will drop ownership claims on Parthenon Marbles

Posted at 1:52 pm in Elgin Marbles

In an interview with The Times, Greece’s Culture Minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, has indicated that he may be willing to set aside the issue of ownership, in order to facilitate serious talks with the British Museum about the reunification of the Elgin Marbles.

Later reports from Greece have however indicated that this attribution was made in error & was not what was discussed in the interview.

The Times

Greece offers to drop claim to Elgin Marbles
Michael Binyon Athens Last updated December 6 2010 12:01 AM

Greece is trying to break decades of stalemate with Britain over the Elgin Marbles by dropping its long-standing claim to ownership of the sculptures in return for the British Museum sending the Acropolis artefacts back to Athens on a long-term loan.

In return, Greece will offer the British Museum a selection of its best classical art, changing the exhibition every few years to give London one of the richest permanent displays in Western Europe of sculpture, carvings and art from ancient Greece.

The offer was made by Pavlos Geroulanos, the Greek Minister of Culture, who said that his country no longer cared about the technical ownership of the Parthenon treasures, as long as they were reunified with the other sculptures that formed part of the richly decorated temple.

His offer, detailed in an interview with The Times, is an attempt to overcome the long dispute over the Marbles. Most of the best preserved sculptures from the Parthenon frieze were removed with the Sultan’s permission by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then included Greece.

They were shipped to Britain between 1801 and 1805, and purchased by Parliament in 1816. Greece has always regarded the deal as illegal and claimed that the treasures were looted.

The British Museum said in a statement that it had not received any formal approach from Greece detailing the latest suppose that the Trustees would alter the sculptures need to continue to be seen “within the world collection of the British Museum”.

At issue, however, is not only the legality of the purchase but the precedent any return would set for museums around the world. The British Museum has long argued that it would encourage dozens of other countries to claim objects on display there, effectively stripping one of the world’s greatest museums of all its treasures.

Athens now appears ready to accept ownership by the British Museum but it is increasing the political and moral pressure for their return. Mr Geroulanos said: “The British Museum is running out of time. The British public is in favour of returning them. The logic of its arguments to keep them is weakening.” Greece wants the Elgin Marbles in the new Acropolis museum but the British Museum has argued that they would be damaged by pollution.

Mr Geroulanos said he had not had any formal talks with the British Government nor with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. He suggested that he wanted talks to be amicable, and did not want to go on “screaming in the old- fashioned way”.

When Melina Mercouri, the actress and former Greek Culture Minister, launched the campaign to get the Marbles back in 1981, the anti-British rhetoric antagonised cultural officials.

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  1. Dr.Kwame Opoku said,

    01.06.11 at 8:38 pm


    “At issue, however, is not only the legality of the purchase but the precedent any return would set for museums around the world. The British Museum has long argued that it would encourage dozens of other countries to claim objects on display there, effectively stripping one of the world’s greatest museums of all its treasures.”

    It is really depressing to realize that the British Museum and its supporters are advancing such weak and baseless arguments decade after decade and through this repetition some intelligent persons even begin to entertain the argument. It is absolutely untenable and only has the advantage for the British Museum that once it advances this argument, it needs not bother about the specific case at issue.

    When Benin asks for some of its bronzes back, it is told if we give you some bronzes back, the Greeks will also ask for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and so we do not want to set a precedent which will end up by emptying the British Museum.

    First of all, the Benin bronzes and the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles are not the same in materials, nature, history and functions. We do not need to amalgamate two different claims with different histories and constituencies. The one might be easier to fulfil than the other.

    Secondly, the Greeks are asking for the Marbles not because Benin is also asking for its bronzes and vice versa. The claims are independent of each other.

    Thirdly, the argument really comes down to this; a person steals your Mercedez
    and when you ask him to return it, he says he cannot give you your Mercedes back because in addition to your car, he has also stolen Peugeot, Volkswagen, Toyota, Bentley, Ferrari and other cars from other persons. I He do not want to set a precedent otherwise his garage will be empty. Can one offer as a defence or justification the fact that one may have committed other violations? Can one wrong be utilised as argument for not correcting another wrong?

    Fourthly, the argument that the British Museum would soon be empty is the figment of the imagination of nervous directors who are not prepared to examine carefully the needs and arguments of owners of looted/stolen artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. Nobody wants to empty the British Museum of all its objects. Not even Zahi Hawass wants all the Egyptian artefacts returned since some, we suppose, have been acquired under perfectly legal conditions. Indeed even in those cases, such as the Benin bronzes which where the objects came mainly from looting, the owners have not asked for the return of all. They have repeatedly emphasized they want some back. Instead of sitting down with the original owners to discuss what precisely should be returned and the conditions for return, the British Museum seems to prefer not to discuss at all. Indeed, many a museum director do not even bother to acknowledge receipt of such claims. We are still being told that the Greeks have not made a formal demand or proposal. How formal should the Greek proposal be? And why does the British Museum itself not take the initiative to make reasonable proposals to the Greeks, as the United Nations, UNESCO and the ICOM Code of Ethics would require?

    Finally, does the British Museum regard itself as a citadel of looted/stolen objects? Why do the officials of the museum always act as if they were under siege?

    None of us want the venerable museums to be emptied. That would be a disaster for all those genuinely interested in culture and cultural objects. What most of us want is recognition by the museum that the world has changed and with this change, some of the objects acquired under dubious circumstances will have to be returned.

    Does the museum believe at all in international co-operation? Or does it accept co-operation only when it does not involve the return of objects?

    Dr.Kwame Opoku

  2. wordbender said,

    01.07.11 at 5:37 pm

    Any argument used so far is irrelevant with the exception of the intended use of the heritage. That should come first in any case of prospective repatriation. An object should be repatriated in case its value (expressed by its use) is higher for the original owner then for the retainer e.g.repatriated human remains or land to aboriginal communities. Aboriginals claimed their ancestor’s remains in order to rebury them and their land to be used in traditional manner so they got it. Greeks intend to treat the marbles in accordance with their “outstanding universal value” in UNESCO terms, which means putting them in a museum as any other museum collection. If the value is universal then the location is irrelevant i.e.the marbles should stay where they are, in London. Their value is not local and Greeks admit it by putting them into museum, not restoring them onto the Parthenon so they can be fully appreciated.
    disclaimer: I am neither British nor a heritage worker.

  3. Selby Whittingham said,

    01.08.11 at 12:37 pm

    It does not follow that if the value is universal then the location is irrelevant. Museums are always going on about putting art in context, sometimes to the detriment of appreciation, but in this case the context provided by Athens is vital. The whole argument for retention – the universal museum – now boils down to one of context. In that case it is unpersuasive. Indeed “The World in 100 objects” is an exercise in taking objects out of the museum context, though of course it is designed as propaganda for the universal museum! Few consider the matter from the perspective of the museum visitor. What does he or she gain from a visit to the British Museum? Do they look at it as a whole or only in a few selected parts?

  4. wordbender said,

    01.08.11 at 2:07 pm

    The marbles will never constitute a whole again even if those parts in London were returned back to Greece for display since some parts are permanently lost through destruction or theft. Before you will continue in going on about putting arts back to its original context, remember that the marbles would be put into museum, not on the Parthenon, their original location. Besides the natural context provides only one “clue” to the interpretation of art. Art can have multiple interpretations which should not be limited by an artist’s original context and museological environments provide different clues to an artwork’s true meaning.

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