April 2, 2006

Greek Culture Minister interviewed about Elgin Marbles

Posted at 5:29 pm in Elgin Marbles

Giorgos Voulgarakis, the Greek Minister of Culture has given an interview on Austrian television about the Parthenon Sculptures held in the British Museum. This is of particular interest, as it is his first in depth statement on the issue since he became Minister of Culture.

Hellenic Ministry of Culture

Interview given by the Greek Minister of Culture Mr George Voulgarakis to the Austrian TV network ORF concerning the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British museum
Ministry of Culture
Press Office
Athens 28 March 2006

Innumerable antiquarian works of art are scattered all over the world. What, in your opinion, makes the Parthenon sculptures so unique?

The Parthenon is the unique, top-ranking monument that symbolises the spirit of Europe. It encapsulates the basic humanist principles. The sculptures have been ripped off from their historic location and the Parthenon stands mutilated. To use a term from ancient Greek tragedy this constitutes ‘hubris’. Seen from this point of view, the demand for the return of the sculptures and their reunification with the temple acquires a very special significance. The duty of restitution owed to the Parthenon is, essentially, the duty of humanity as a whole to global civilisation.

When, some years ago, I interviewed your predecessor Melina Mercouri on the same subject in this self-same city, she gave me this emotional reply: ‘We want our soul back!’ Do you see the issue in the same light?

The struggles of Melina Mercouri for the return of the Parthenon sculptures are well-known. Blessed with sensitivity, temperament and dynamism she sounded the alarm world-wide on this major issue. The claim for the return of the sculptures is grounded on reason; it is certainly not the product of any nation-centred obstreperousness. This is what Melina meant when she said ‘we want our soul back’. We want the Parthenon sculptures back so that a breached cultural order, of concern to everybody and not just to Greeks, can be restored.

What, in your opinion, is the feeling of the Greek people on this issue?

Greeks consider this a claim of the utmost priority and not because of any ancestor-worship attitude or any retrospective nationalistic reflexes. What they perceive – as Greeks – is that a moral code is being breached by continuing to deprive the temple of its sculptures. Greeks feel obliged to do their utmost to become able to gift the restored temple to the world.

Do you personally believe that the British Museum will return the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’ to Greece?

These are the Parthenon sculptures, no less, and I am totally convinced that they will be returned, sooner or later. Firmness and perseverance are needed on our part and we will not falter until success crowns our efforts.

In your opinion, how can Greece’s claim for the return of the sculptures be grounded in international law?

To begin with, I do not wish to assimilate the Parthenon sculptures to any other collections of antiques. This does mean we do not value the artefacts belonging to other collections, Greek of foreign. It only means that the Parthenon sculptures have an altogether special importance. The claim for their return is self-explanatory, ecumenical, and transcends any legal framework.

What do you think of Britain’s position on this issue? What is your opinion on the stance of the British Museum?

The British public has been sensitised to the issue of the return of the sculptures. British public opinion is increasingly in favour of their repatriation. Recently, on 1st February 2006 the Labour MP Mr Andrew Dismore tabled a motion in the House of Commons for the return of the sculptures that has, by now, been signed by 31 of his colleagues. The signatories declare that they look forward to the day when people from all over the world will be able to see all the salvaged parts of the Parthenon reunified in their proper historical and geographical setting, in the New Acropolis Museum. I hope that the British Museum will not object once adequate space for their display will have become available. In a year’s time the New Acropolis Museum will be open for business with its specially designed show-cases that will remain empty, ready to house the sculptures when these are returned from Britain.

What further initiatives can one expect from the Greek Government and from you as Minister of Culture on this issue?

The truth is that up till now many approaches have been tried, whether legal, moral or political, unfortunately to no avail. I am minded to take seriously the give-and-take approach and respond favourably to requests for lending antiques as well as exhibiting them from time to time in the great museums of the world. I am referring in practical terms to works of art of which we have many. Offering specimens of our cultural past will, I think, act as our best ambassador abroad.

In Britain there is an influential movement of support for your claim to see the sculptures returned. Do you think this will be of help?

If I am not mistaken, we are talking about a percentage of 65%, perhaps more. Of course this will help; it may even prove decisive. The wish of the citizenry is the rule for all forms of democratic governance and informs all the decisions that Governments take. I would like to add that on 25th March this year, the International Federation for the Reunification of the Parthenon sculptures, recommended, obtained and announced the will of the citizens of 12 countries (Australia, Belgium, Britain, Cyprus, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Montenegro and the US) in favour of the repatriation of the missing members of the Parthenon. The Federation will not desist until such time as the sculptures return to where they belong, that is to Athens.

Where would you house the Parthenon sculptures if they were returned to Greece?

In the Parthenon Hall within the New Acropolis Museum. As I said before, the show-cases specially designed for them will remain empty until the return of the sculptures. For each part of the sculptures that is in Britain, a special place will be reserved. We see this project as a kind of invitation to British scholars to participate in the programme of restitution of the sculptures to the Parthenon to which they belong.

(The interview was given to the journalist Mr Gustav W. Trampitsch)

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